23 JUNE 2017

 

In this issue:

FRA Hosts Coast Guard Caucus Event
NDAA Gets Subcommittee Markup in House
Arlington National Cemetery Plans to Expand

FRA Hosts Coast Guard Caucus Event
FRA hosted its 19th annual Coast Guard Caucus breakfast this week. This event is designed to expand awareness on issues between senior Coast Guard leaders that promote dialogue between those members and members of Congress. FRA National Executive Director Thomas Snee, who introduced the Commandant, Admiral Paul Zukunft, noted: “Each meeting brings a new dimension towards success, and mission of accomplishments for the “5th” branch of service that not only provides security in our inland water ways, environmental studies, reduces trafficking; it also strengthens our national security.”

The Coast Guard’s 25th Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, recently returned from the International Sea Power Symposium, was the keynote speaker. The Commandant claimed that America was not only the world’s best coast guard but also the world’s best sea services (Navy and Marine Corps). He boasted that the U.S. Coast Guard has twice the retention rate to that of other sea services. The Commandant noted that the Coast Guard has serious funding challenges with implementing the new Blended Retirement System (BRS) that is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2018.

Two Coast Guard Caucus co-chairman Reps. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and John Garamendi (Calif.), who are the Chairman and Ranking Members of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee respectively, spoke at the meeting to express support for adding a Coast Guard Ice Breaker. They also noted that the Coast Guard will have funding issues with the BRS.

Zukunft acknowledged FRA’s long-standing and strong commitment to the Coast Guard, thanking the association for its constant support of the personnel and their families. FRA’s advocacy work focuses on compensation, health care and various quality-of-life programs that affect those in the USCG. Specifically, FRA works to ensure Coast Guard pay and benefits remain on par with those enjoyed by Department of Defense personnel, and that adequate funding is available to support these programs. FRA is committed to educating members of Congress, their staff and the public about the Coast Guard’s critical missions as a part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Coast Guard Caucus Co-Chairman Rep. Joe Courtney (Conn.), assistant MCPO Leilani Cale-Jones and FRA National President Donald Larson, were also in attendance.

 

NDAA Gets Subcommittee Markup in House
The House Armed Services, Military Personnel Subcommittee (HASC-MP) along other HASC Subcommittees completed their mark ups of their portion of the House version of the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-H.R. 2810). The HASC Subcommittee that deals with FRA issues is the HASC-MP. Subcommittee Chairman Mike Coffman (Col.) stated that the bill would rebuild and grow the military. Ranking Member Jackie Speier (Calif.) expressed disappointment that the Subcommittee could not at this time find funding or spending offsets for extending or eliminating the expiration date (May 31, 2018) for the Special Survivors Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) for widows/widowers.

The Subcommittee markup includes:

• Prohibiting TRICARE fee increases or pharmacy co-pay increases;
• Providing larger than requested pay increase (2.4% vice 2.1%);
• Increasing Navy end strength by 4,000 and maintain Marine Corps end strength;
• Enhancing OTH discharge review for Vietnam combat veterans presumed to have PTSD;
• Adding $30 million for impact aid to public schools with large military population;
• Prohibiting active duty wrongful broadcast or distribution of intimate visual images;
• Reimbursing military spouse for state licensure arising from relocation to another state;

The combined subcommittee mark ups will be reviewed by the full committee and then go to the full House for amendments, debate and approval. Once the Senate completes its version of the FY 2018 NDAA, the two chambers will appoint a conference committee made up of Senators and Representatives to arrive at a final Defense Authorization Bill to be approved by both chambers and sent to President Trump for signature or veto.

Arlington National Cemetery Plans to Expand
The Army Times is reporting in the June 15, 2017 issue that Arlington National Cemetery will move forward with plans to expand the cemetery by more than 50,000 spaces that will extend the life of the cemetery from 2041 to until 2050. These additional burial sites will provide expansion from lands from the original Navy Annex complex and other adjacent areas at the cemetery. A December 2016 survey of FRA members reveals that 92 percent support immediate expansion of the Cemetery and 67 percent want to reserve a set amount of space for Medal of Honor recipients and/or active duty deaths. For more information on this matter and survey results, be sure to read the upcoming FRAtoday July 2017 issue.

16 JUNE 2017
In this issue:

VA Accountability Legislation Heads to President’s Desk
FRA Participates in Arlington Cemetery Roundtable Discussion
FY 2018 Spending Bill Moves Forward
Debt Limit Fight Expected Sooner Rather Than Later

VA Accountability Legislation Heads to President’s Desk

National Executive Director (NED) Thomas Snee participated in a press conference on Capitol Hill to celebrate the passage of the “Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act” (S.1094) to bring accountability to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The legislation will now head to the president’s desk. The FRA-supported bill streamlines the process to remove, demote or suspend (for longer than 14 days) any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct. The bill also expanded protections for whistleblowers at the VA. Further, the bill authorizes the VA to reduce an employee’s federal pension if they are convicted of a felony that influenced their work. Legislators at the press conference include: House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Conference Chair Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (Wash.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), HVAC Chairman Phil Roe, Rep.(Tenn.) Rep. Brian Mast (Fla.), Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.), Rep. Jodey Arrington (Tex.), Rep. Bruce Poliquin (Maine), Rep. Scott Taylor (Va.), Rep. Neal Dunn (Fla.), Rep. Tim Murphy (Penn.).

A special thanks to HVAC Chairman Roe for acknowledging during the conference, FRA’s support in getting the bill passed. FRA’s quote from NED Snee that was referenced by Chair Roe stated, “Accountability in the VA, and within the department, should be an authentic, autonomous, and transparent continuum, of a prime-mover, for the defined core-values, care and benefits of our nation’s veterans and their families. This should be the mainstay, the anchor, and responsible course of action, now and forever.”

In related news, the House also approved the “Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act” (H.R.1725) introduced by Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.). The bill requires (current law allows) the VA to accept, for purposes of establishing a claim for veterans disability benefits, a report of a medical examination administered by a private physician. If the report is sufficiently complete, it no longer requires confirmation by a Veterans Health Administration (VHA) physician. The bill now goes to the Senate for further consideration. Members can use the FRA Action Center to ask their Senators to support the bill.

FRA Participates in Arlington Cemetery Roundtable Discussion

NED Thomas Snee recently participated in a VSO round table discussion about the future of Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) that was organized by the Arlington Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery, established October 2010, is tasked with providing independent advice for extending the availability of ANC. Some possibilities are altering or restricting eligibility criteria for burial, in order to extend the cemetery for future generations. At current rates of burials and internments, ANC will reach capacity in 2041. They would like to ensure maximum interment and inurnment capacity of the cemetery is not reached until well into the future. “Well into the Future” is defined as approximately 100 to 200 years from now.

The Committee desires a survey of the entire country to obtain feedback about what citizens think about the expansion and burial restrictions. NED Snee told the Committee that FRA surveyed members on their thoughts and concerns regarding eligibility to be buried at ANC. A very large majority (92 percent) believes that ANC should pursue all possible options for acquiring additional land before making any restrictions on the current eligibility. More than 67 percent want to reserve a set amount of space for Medal of Honor recipients and/or active duty deaths. More than 61 percent of respondents disagree with the statement: “The need to keep ANC operational for 100 years or more by significantly restricting eligibility is a more important consideration than requiring older veterans and military retirees currently planning on burial at Arlington to change their plans.”

ANC is managed by the Department of the Army and does not fall under any of the rules and regulations of veteran’s cemeteries administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. FRA understands this is an important issue for Shipmates and will continue to monitor and report on developments as they occur.

FY 2018 Spending Bill Moves Forward

The House Appropriations Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee marked up and approved its FY2018 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill, which will be sent onto the full House Appropriations Committee. The still unnumbered legislation meets the goals outlined by the White House to rebuild the military, provide funding to house, train and equip military personnel, provide housing and services to military families and help maintain base infrastructure. The bill also funds the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

In total, the legislation provides $88.8 billion in discretionary funding – $6 billion more than the fiscal year 2017 level. This includes $638 million in Overseas Contingency Operations funding, which includes funding for European Reassurance Initiative projects.

Within this total, funding for the VA is increased by $4 billion (5 percent) more than the fiscal year 2017 level, including funding to increase access to services for veterans, and to increase oversight and accountability within the agency.

Military construction is increased by $2.1 billion (25 percent) more than the FY2017 level, to provide resources to rebuild the military, prepare our service members to face existing and emerging threats and care for military families.

FRA will monitor this legislation to ensure adequate funding for military construction (barracks, child care centers etc.) and the VA. There will be special attention given to VA health care to ensure access and care for all beneficiaries.

Debt Limit Fight Expected Sooner Rather Than Later

In November 2015 President Obama signed a budget deal with House and Senate Republicans that included lifting the federal government debt ceiling until March 31, 2017. Many budget analysts predicted that no action was needed until later in the year when the debt ceiling could be included with passing spending bills for FY2018. Including it makes it easier to pass. Unfortunately the debt limit deadline is approaching faster than expected. Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director stated, “We need to raise [the] debt ceiling before they leave for the summer. The country will run out of borrowing authority soon and all federal payments may be impacted if the ceiling is not raised.” Often the debt limit increase vote can rattle financial markets and disrupt the legislative process on Capitol Hill.

9 JUNE 2017
In this issue:
House Passes Financial Choice Act
VA to Use Same Electronic Record System as DoD
DHS Secretary Says USCG Budget Not Big Enough
Veterans Can Register for Online Exchange Shopping

House Passes Financial Choice Act
The House passed the “Financial CHOICE Act” (H.R.10), which seeks to dramatically reshape the regulation of banking and other financial activities. This legislation includes a number of provisions weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and its Office of Service Members Affairs. Specifically, FRA is concerned with Section 725 of the bill that would make the current mandatory Office of Service Member Affairs a discretionary office. A future Director could eliminate this important office. Further, Section 733 would remove CFPB’s ability to regulate small-dollar loans, such as payday loans, despite evidence of pervasive predatory practices often focused on service members.

The Association wants to ensure that the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is enforced by regulatory agencies including the CFPB, Office of Service Members Affairs. FRA will work to ensure active duty personnel are protected from predatory lenders.

The bill now goes to the Senate for further consideration. Members can use the FRA Action Center to ask their Senators to oppose this legislation.

VA to Use Same Electronic Health Care Record System as DoD
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David J. Shulkin recently announced that the VA will dramatically reform his agency’s Electronic Health Record (EHR) system by replacing the old antiquated system with same system used by the Department of Defense. This change is a shift from the VA’s previous plan to develop its own digital records system. The system would bring the agencies closer to being able to share veterans’ health information. This would solve a problem that has plagued both departments for decades. “The health and safety of our veterans is one of our highest national priorities.” Shulkin said “Having a veteran’s complete and accurate health record in a single common EHR system is critical to that care, and to improving patient safety.” Secretary Shulkin claims the electronic records system has a high level of cyber-security.

FRA has long sought to ensure adequate funding for DoD and VA health care resource sharing. It would deliver seamless, cost effective, quality services to personnel wounded in combat as well as veterans and their families. In Capitol Hill testimony, FRA has repeatedly called for increased oversight to motivate both agencies to make progress on this issue.

DHS Secretary Says USCG Budget Is Not Big Enough
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) General John Kelly testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee this week. He discussed the DHS budget and his agency’s efforts to keep Americans safe from any terrorist attack or other external threats. During the hearing Committee Chairman Senator Ron Johnson (Wis.) asked about the U.S. Coast Guard budget. The DHS Secretary said the Coast Guard is an amazing organization and its budget is not big enough. The agency needs to re-capitalize and some of their equipment is so old that “it just limps along.”

The Trump Administration’s FY2018 budget request substantially increases the Armed Services (Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force) spending. The U.S. Coast Guard does not get a corresponding increase in their budget request.

Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center to ask their legislators to provide U.S. Coast Guard funding parity with the Department of Defense (DoD).

Veterans Can Register for Online Military Exchange Shopping
Some veterans who register at VetVerify.org will be invited to be beta testers. They will have the ability to shop online earlier than the planned November 11, 2017 launch date. Officials said the sooner veterans register on the site, the better their chances of being chosen as a beta tester. Honorably discharged veterans interested in shopping online at military exchanges can begin their verification process immediately. Exchange officials said, some patrons may be able to shop online before the program’s full launch. The exchange websites offer tax-free shopping, and discounted pricing. Actual online pricing can be seen only by those who are authorized to shop at the following websites:

shopmyexchangeshopcgx, mymcx and mynavyexchange

VetVerify.org uses information from the Defense Department’s Defense Manpower Data Center to verify a veterans’ status. Veterans will receive notification of their acceptance as online shoppers. If their records are incomplete, they will receive guidance on how to update their records. Doing this in advance of the deadline will allow veterans to start shopping on November 1, or earlier if they are chosen as “beta testers” of the system.

This new benefit, which would increase the online shopping base by an estimated 13 million veterans, only applies to online military exchange shopping. This will not affect shopping at the physical military installations. Until now, online exchange shopping was only available to active-duty, reserve and Guard members, retirees, 100 percent disabled veterans and their dependent family members, as well as certain others.

Cindy Whitman Lacy, Marine Corps Exchange Director of Business and Support Services at Headquarters Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs said in a statement announcing the verifying website, “It’s an honor to now provide this service and benefit to our well-deserving veterans. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

2 JUNE 2017
In this issue:
HVAC Budget Hearing
VA Disability Appeals Reform Passes
Bipartisan Agreement Reached on Accountability of VA Employees
White House Veterans Complaint Line

HVAC Budget Hearing
National President Donald Larson and Assistant Director of Veterans Program Brian Condon attended a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to review President Trump’s proposed FY2018 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin explained the administration’s priorities for the next fiscal year that includes expanding the VA Choice Program, modernizing VA disability claims process, improving suicide prevention and programs tailored to meet the special needs of women veterans.

As mentioned in last week’s Newsbytes the proposed budget also eliminates the Individual Unemployability benefit payments to retirement-age disabled veterans. Under current policies, the Individual Unemployability program allows the VA to award payouts at the 100-percent disabled rate to veterans who cannot find work due to service-connected injuries, even if they are not deemed 100-percent disabled. The Administration has proposed stopping those payouts once veterans are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. This cut would impact more than 225,000 veterans currently receiving this benefit.

Veterans receiving benefit checks from the VA would also have their annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) reduced or “round down” to the nearest dollar.

Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center on our website to ask their legislators to oppose these benefit cuts.

VA Disability Appeals Reform Passes
The House and Senate approved the “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act” (H.R.2288), sponsored by Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.) that addresses the growing backlog of disability appeal cases. Currently, there are more than 470,000 cases awaiting appeal.

The bill would create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals, and would give the Secretary the authority to test the new system prior to full implementation. As well as, allow some veterans, already going through the appeals process, to opt-into the new system. It would require the VA to provide a comprehensive plan for processing legacy appeals-appeals filed before the effective date of the bill.

The bill now goes to President Trump to be signed into law. Thank you to all the Shipmates that used the FRA Action Center and weighed in on this important legislation.

Bipartisan Agreement Reached on Accountability of VA Employees
Top lawmakers have apparently reached a bipartisan and bicameral agreement on how the Department of Veterans Affairs should have a more streamlined process for dismissing dishonest employees. The “Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act” (S.1094), sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (Fla.) reforms the VA by allowing the secretary to dismiss bad employees and ensure appropriate due process protections for whistleblowers. The VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin and the two top members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Chairman Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.) and Ranking Member Tim Walz (Minn.) support the legislation. The bill has been approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and is awaiting consideration on the Senate floor.

White House Veterans Complaint Line
During the 2016 Presidential election campaign, then Presidential candidate Donald Trump pledged to create a White House complaint line for veterans. The phone line is now available and the number is 855-948-2311. It is intended to “collect, process and respond to the complaints of individual veterans in a responsive, timely and accountable manner,” according to Department of Veterans Affairs officials.

VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin has described the initial rollout of the line as a soft launch, with “live-answer agents” receiving and processing some of the calls. He promised that by August 15, the hotline will have continuous coverage from a live operator 24 hours a day, every day of the week. Calls to the hotline will be kept confidential, but information will be shared with VA officials. In some cases veterans will be asked to give personal information for responses to specific problems.

26 MAY 2017

In this issue:
FY2018 Defense Budget Request has TRICARE Fee Increases
VA Budget Request Rollout Decreases Some Benefits
Chairman of JCS Re-appointed
Memorial Day Observances
FY 2018 Defense Budget Request has TRICARE Fee Increases
The President’s budget request includes $639 billion for discretionary spending authority for the Department of Defense (DoD), which is a $52 billion increase above FY 2017 DoD budget. Most of the increases go to modernization and force readiness.

The proposed budget would increase some health care fees. During the previous year, Congress passed substantial TRICARE Reform that merged TRICARE Standard/Extra into TRICARE Select. Among the changes, service members entering the military after January 1, 2018, would have to pay higher out-of-pocket costs for health care. But current service members and retirees were grandfathered into the new TRICARE program without any cost increase. These changes are supposed to go into effect January 1, 2018. The DoD request proposes new TRICARE changes that will lead to higher out-of-pocket costs, including:

Elimination of the grandfathering provision, directly causing higher out-of-pocket costs for all working age retirees;
Premiums, co-pays, deductibles and catastrophic caps for beneficiaries younger than age 65 would dramatically increase annually, based on increases in health care costs measured by the growth in National Health Expenditures;
Increasing co-pays, deductibles and the catastrophic cap for currently covered TRICARE Standard/Select families;
Increasing pharmacy co-pays for retirees younger than age 65, including a new co-pay for mail-order generics that are currently available with no out-of-pocket cost; and
Allowing larger annual increases to TRICARE out-of-pocket fees that would impact all working age retirees and currently covered TRICARE Standard/Select families. Their participation fees, deductibles, co-pays and catastrophic cap would have higher annual increases.
The budget also calls for a smaller than expected pay raise for active duty (2.1%) even though the current statute calls for an increase equal to civilian pay increases (2.4%). The budget request does nothing to change scheduled reductions to Base Allowance for Housing reimbursements. The budget request asks for another Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) commission. The commission is empowered to make a list of bases to close and gives the House and Senate an up or down vote only.

In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard budget (part of the Department of Homeland Security) does not provide the same increase as the Navy and Marine Corps budget request. FRA appreciates the administration’s effort to increase spending for the DoD, but will emphasize the USCG plays a critical role in national defense. The Coast Guard needs the same percentage funding increase as the other Sea Services Adequate funding for the Coast Guard is essential to morale, family readiness and service-wide Coast Guard readiness. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center on our website to ask their legislators to oppose these TRICARE fee increases and to urge them to provide adequate funding for the Coast Guard.

VA Budget Request Rollout Decreases Some Benefits
FRA ADVP Brian Condon and FRA NVSO Chris Slawinski attended the annual Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) FY 2018 budget briefing. The budget request includes a 3.7 percent increase over FY 2017. The White House proposed $186.5 billion budget for VA operations next year:

Provides $13.2 billion for medical care outside the VA, through the FRA-supported VA Choice program (13 percent increase).
Increases mental health care by $473 million; and
Delivers $505 million for gender-specific health care services for women veterans (7 percent increase).
The budget request also trims some VA benefits. Veterans receiving benefit checks from the VA would have their annual cost-of-living-adjustment reduced or “rounded down” to the next dollar, which was VA policy from the late 1990s until 2013. The VA has estimated it would save $20 million in FY 2018 and cost individual veterans no more than $12 per year.

The proposed budget eliminates the Individual Unemployability benefit payments to retirement-age veterans, a move expected to save $3.2 billion next year alone and $41 billion over 10 years. Under current policies, the Individual Unemployability program allows the VA to award payouts at the 100-percent disabled rate to veterans who cannot find work, due to service-connected injuries. Even if they are not deemed 100-percent disabled. The number of program recipients has tripled since 2000, reaching almost 339,000 in FY 2016. The Administration has proposed stopping those payouts once veterans are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. The argument is that the practice amounts to “the duplication of benefits.” It would impact more than 225,000 veterans currently receiving this benefit. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center on our website and ask their legislators to oppose the cuts to veteran benefits.

Chairman of JCS Re-appointed
Press reports indicate that Marine General Joe Dunford will be nominated for a second term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Air Force General Paul Selva will be nominated for a second term as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Dunford served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs since September 2015. The Joint Chiefs chairman serves a two-year term that may be renewed. Dunford’s reappointment must be confirmed by the Senate.

Prior to becoming Joint Chiefs Chairman, Dunford served as Marine Corps Commandant, the service’s top officer. Dunford also served as assistant commandant from 2010-12 as well as the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan from 2013-14. He was first commissioned in 1977.

Memorial Day Observances
National President Donald Larson will represent the FRA during Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery Monday, May 29. FRA will join other national leaders in honoring the men and women who have died while serving their nation, by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown. FRA Branches from the East Coast Region’s Central Liaison Committee are sponsoring a ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial on Memorial Day. Many FRA members will also participate in Memorial Day ceremonies all across the country, paying tribute to America’s fallen heroes.

On Saturday, May 27 and Sunday, May 28, shipmates from the D.C. area and members of the FRA Headquarters will staff an information booth at Rolling Thunder, the annual motorcycle tribute held at the nation’s Capital. The event was established to show the country and the world that Vietnam POWs and MIAs are not forgotten.

FRA NHQ will be closed on Monday, May 29, in observance of Memorial Day.

19 MAY 2017

In this issue:
HVAC Approves Bills to Speed up Veterans Disability Benefits
U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Divorced Military Retiree
FRA Supports CFPB Military Affairs Office
FRA Salutes Outstanding Sailors
Navy Reserve Force Master Chief Selected
HVAC Approves Bills to Speed up Veterans Disability Benefits
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC) marked up and approved several proposals that include two FRA-supported bills that aim to improve adjudication of disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act” (H.R.2288), sponsored by Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.) addresses the growing backlog of disability appeal cases. There are more than 470,000 cases awaiting appeal.

The bill would create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals, and would give the Secretary the authority to test the new system prior to full implementation. It would also allow some veterans, already going through the appeals process, to opt into the new system. It would require the VA to provide a comprehensive plan for processing legacy appeals-appeals filed before the effective date of the bill.

The Committee also approved The “Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act” (H.R.1725), introduced by Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.). The bill requires (current law allows) the VA to accept, for purposes of establishing a claim for veterans disability benefits, a report of a medical examination administered by a private physician. If the report is sufficiently complete, it no longer requires confirmation by a Veterans Health Administration physician.
Both of these legislative proposals are listed on our website in the FRA Action Center and members are urged to ask their representatives to support the bill.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Divorced Military Retiree
The United States Supreme Court recently ruled (8-0) in Howell v. Howell (Docket 15-1031) holding: A state court may not order a military retiree to indemnify a divorced spouse for the loss in the divorced spouse’s portion of the retirement pay caused by the retiree’s waiver of retirement pay to receive service-related disability benefits. FRA has expressed concern in Congressional testimony that some state courts have been awarding a percentage of veterans’ compensation to ex-spouses. This is a clear violation of U.S. law yet, until now, the Federal government has done nothing to stop this transgression.

FRA Supports CFPB Military Affairs Office
In the wake of Congressional efforts to make substantial changes to law creating the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), FRA signed onto a letter to Congress, supporting CFPB’s Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA).

The CFPB was created in 2010 and within the CFPB is the OSA, which is headed by Mrs. Holly Petraeus, wife of former CIA Director and four-star General David Petraeus. OSA works with bank examiners on military-specific issues and plans to make it easy for military and their families to contact the CFPB with questions or complaints about consumer financial products and services. The OSA was an FRA-supported provision in the 2010 financial regulation law. The need for OSA was demonstrated in 2011 when the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (HVAC) held hearings on banks ignoring the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act that indicated widespread abuse of SCRA. Mrs. Petraeus testified at one of the HVAC hearings, ensuring the committee that the OSA will work on educating military about their financial protections and best financial practices.

FRA Salutes Outstanding Sailors
FRA congratulates the Navy’s 2016 Sailors of the Year (SOY), who were meritoriously promoted to chief petty officers during ceremonies in the D.C. this week. There activities included an FRA-sponsored tour of the Library of Congress along with a Capitol Hill luncheon for the SOYs and their families. An advancement ceremony was held at the U.S. Navy Memorial.

The finalists included:

• Navy Reserve
AWRC (NAC/AW/SW) Mark W. Brown, USNR
Mobile Tactical Operations Center, Detachment, Detroit, Mich.

• Fleet Forces Command, Atlantic
CTTC (NAC/IDW/AW) Courtney P. Evers, USN
NIOD Kaneohe Bay

• Fleet Forces Command, Pacific
ICC (SW) Brent T. Schermerhorn, USN
USS PREBLE (DDG 88)

• Navy Shore
LSC (SW/EXW) Amber L. Wilson
Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes

Navy Reserve Force Master Chief Selected
Commander, Navy Reserve Force Vice Admiral Luke McCollum recently announced Command Master Chief Christopher D. Kotz will take charge from Force Master Chief “CJ” Mitchell this October.

“Master Chief Kotz will be a tremendous leader and loyal advocate for all our Sailors. He is a highly qualified, well-rounded professional with multiple sea and shore assignments. His depth of knowledge, experience, and deck plate leadership will have a positive effect on our Force and future leaders.” said McCollum.

Kotz, who will be the 16th Navy Reserve Force Master Chief, is a native of North Augusta, S.C. He enlisted into the Navy in February 1991. Following completion of basic training at Recruit Training Command, San Diego, he attended Basic Hospital Corps School, Naval School of Health Sciences, San Diego. “We are very excited for Master Chief Kotz and his family. He will be an outstanding representative for Navy Reserve Sailors,” said Mitchell.

As Navy Reserve Force Master Chief, Kotz will be responsible for advising the Chief of Navy Reserve on matters affecting the morale, retention, Sailor development, and general well-being of more than 43,500 enlisted personnel of the Navy Reserve. The Force Master Chief is also charged with ensuring active communication throughout the force, instilling a sense of heritage, and actively promoting core Navy values to all Sailors.

12 MAY 2017
In this issue:
Federal Court of Appeals Hearing on AOBWN Issue
VA Disability Appeals Reform Introduced
House and Senate Subcommittees Have Oversight Hearings of VA
Unemployment for Post-911 Veterans Drops
Military Spouse Appreciation Day

Federal Court of Appeals Hearing on AOBWN Issue
FRA staff Chris Slawinski and Brian Condon attended the hearing. Oral arguments took place in the case of Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs took place last week at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, DC. FRA Shipmate Commander John Wells, USN (Ret.) argued on behalf of the Blue Water Veterans. The hearing was to determine judicial jurisdiction in the case.

Lawyers for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) held firm in their position that all rules and policies were followed when it applied additional restrictions for those service members who did not step foot on land in Vietnam.

Shipmate Wells argued that based on other court decisions, current VA policies are contradictory and require clarification by the court. The three-judge panel asked specific and concise questions challenging both Wells and the VA on their respective positions. One judge stated, “We can be sympathetic all we want but we can’t make a decision that is inconsistent with the law.”

VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin has the authority to authorize inclusion of Blue Water Vets into the presumptive category for Agent Orange, which would make these court proceedings irrelevant. The Court’s decision is expected in a few months. FRA is seeking a legislative remedy and members are encourage to use the FRA Action Center on our website to ask their legislators to pass legislation (H.R.299/S.422) and ask VA Secretary Shulkin to implement regulation to expand presumption to include Blue Water Veterans.

VA Disability Appeals Reform Introduced
FRA Director of Legislative Programs John Davis attended a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on reforming and modernizing the Department of Veterans Affairs appeals process for appeals of disability claim decisions. In connection with that hearing, Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.) Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Chairman and Ranking Member Elizabeth Esty (Conn.) introduced the “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act” (H.R.2288). Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) plan to introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

The bill would create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals:

• Local Higher Level Review Lane where an adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor
• New Evidence Lane where the veteran could submit new evidence for review and have a hearing
• Board Lane where jurisdiction for the appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals

The bill would give the Secretary authority to test the new system prior to full implementation. It would also allow some veterans, already going through the appeals process, to opt into the new system. It would require the VA to provide a comprehensive plan for processing legacy appeals-appeals filed before the effective date of the bill.

“I am proud to introduce this long-overdue legislation to provide veterans with a streamlined process to have their appeals decided in a timely manner. As of March 1, 2017, 470,000 veterans are still waiting on a decision from the VA. This is unacceptable, and I thank President Trump and Secretary Shulkin for making appeals reforms a priority for this administration,” said Bost.

Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center on our website to ask their Representatives to support this bill.

House and Senate Subcommittees Have Oversight Hearings of VA
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies held a hearing to review the VA’s budget recommendations. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. Shulkin informed the subcommittee about:

• Improving the VA Caregiver program
• Expanding access to mental health care for veterans with other-than-honorable discharges
• Advancing interoperability of electronic medical records between VA and DOD
• Closing more than 1,000 unused or underutilized buildings that cost the VA $25 million a year

The House Subcommittee also discussed the cost of improving the VA Choice Program and expanding benefits for Agent Orange Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies held a hearing on the VA Telemedicine program that is improving health care access, improving health care outcomes and reducing costs for the VA. The program allows veterans to consult with medical providers without having the expense of traveling to the medical facility. Testifying VA staff asked for legislation to allow for the use of telehealth across state lines if the veteran and doctor are outside of a VA facility.

Unemployment for Post-911 Veterans Drops
The unemployment rate for post-911 veterans has recently dropped from five percent to 3.9 percent according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for the youngest generation of veterans dipped from 5 percent in March to 3.9 in April-the lowest since the federal government started tracking this group in 2008. Overall it dropped to 3.7 percent, the lowest since May 2016.

For nonveterans, the rate in April was also 3.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job loss rate for Americans overall also dropped slightly, as the U.S. added a total of 211,000 jobs last month, primarily in the hospitality, food service and healthcare industries.

Military Spouse Appreciation Day
Friday, May 12, 2017 is Military Spouse Appreciation Day, created by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 to honor the contributions and sacrifices made by military spouses. Their commitment and support helps to keep our country safe. America’s military spouses are the backbone of the families who support our troops during mission, deployment, reintegration and reset. Military spouses are silent heroes who are essential to the strength of the nation and they serve our country just like their loved ones.

Click here to read more about this Appreciation Day.

5 MAY 2017
In this issue:

FY 2017 Spending Bill
FRA Participates in DHA Working Group
Senate Subcommittee Reviews Veteran’s Suicide
TRICARE Changes Coverage for Nexium
DFAS Address for Retirees, Annuitants Changed May 1

FY 2017 Spending Bill
Congressional budget negotiators reached a final agreement on spending for the current fiscal year (FY2017) that includes a $21 billion boost to Defense spending compared to FY2016. Most of that increase will go to readiness. The bill passed both chambers and was sent to the President to be signed into law. FRA wants to thank the nearly 3,000 Shipmates who sent messages to their elected officials asking them to adequately fund Defense. The Trump Administration is scheduled to submit its FY 2018 budget request later this month.

FRA Participates in DHA Working Group
FRA Director of Outreach Coordination & Legislative Program Healthcare Advisor Bob Washington participated in a recent meeting of the Military Health System MSO/VSO Working Group with Acting Deputy Director of the Defense Health Agency (DHA) RADM Colin Chinn. Discussions focused on the implementation of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act, TRICARE changes, the May 1 transition of the TRICARE dental program from MetLife to United Concordia, upcoming changes in treatment for mental health and substance use disorder, DHA’s Empower the Patient cybersecurity campaign and TRICARE’s online portal.
The DHA’s Empower the Patient campaign attempts to help beneficiaries protect their health care information and reduce the jeopardy of cybercrimes. Here are two websites that can help inform TRICARE beneficiaries about how to keep their information safe: Military Health System and TRICARE Cybersecurity.

For more information on the TRICARE online portal click here.

Senate Subcommittee Reviews Veteran’s Suicide
The Senate Appropriations, Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies recently held an oversight hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) veteran suicide prevention programs. The Subcommittee accepted testimony from the VA Inspector General, as well as staff from the Veterans Health Administration, Military Veteran Project and the RAND Corporation. Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), Ranking Member Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and other subcommittee members inquired about resources and support the VA needs to lower the number of veteran suicides.

There have been recent press reports claiming the VA Crisis Line is still sending nearly one third of calls to outside back-up call centers. This is still happening, despite pledges in 2016 by VA officials to stop the practice, following a report from the Inspector General that found the call centers routed veterans to voicemail. The VA established the call center in 2007, anticipating 10 percent of all calls would be routed to a backup call center if all the phone lines are busy. Even though a second call center was opened in 2016, the number of rerouted calls remains high. The VA estimates 20 veterans commit suicide every day. FRA gives suicide prevention programs a high priority and welcomes this oversight hearing to help ensure that these programs help our veterans.

Also discussed was the impact of access issues in rural areas, properly managing chronic pain and the VA’s delay in addressing VA Inspector General’s criticism of the current program.

TRICARE Changes Coverage for Nexium
Starting June 28, 2017, TRICARE will no longer include the drug Nexium in the preferred, or formulary drug list and it will no longer be available in military hospitals or clinics. In order to prepare for the change, patients are currently being asked to switch to one of the following three preferred alternatives that have been shown to demonstrate effective results.

• Omeprazole
• Pantoprazole
• Rabeprazole

Doctors may determine the preferred alternatives are not right for beneficiaries and that Nexium is “medically necessary.” To be medically necessary means the drug is appropriate, reasonable and adequate for the condition. In those cases, TRICARE will continue to cover the cost of Nexium, minus the $20 copay, for a 90-day supply of home delivery and $24 copay for a 30-day supply via a retail outlet. Your doctor must submit a prior authorization and a reason why it is medically necessary via the Express Scripts doctor line in order for you to fill your prescription.

For patients who continue to use Nexium with a prior authorization but WITHOUT a doctor’s medical necessity determination, the non-formulary copay cost will be $49 for a 90-day supply via home pharmacy delivery or $50 for a 30-day supply via a retail outlet.

Nexium is a popular drug for treating gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This reflux acid irritates the lining of the esophagus, which over time can lead to GERD. TRICARE argues that many people can make lifestyle changes and take over-the-counter medication to manage their GERD symptoms. For more information regarding brand, generic drugs and which drugs are on TRICARE’s formulary list please click here.

DFAS Address for Retirees, Annuitants Changed May 1
Military retirees and annuitants corresponding with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) need to use a new address. The old addresses in London, Ky. have been used for years but will be discontinued and replaced by two new addresses in Indianapolis, Ind.

To help speed up receipt and customer service, use these new mailing addresses:

Retired Pay correspondence:
Defense Finance and Accounting Service
U.S. Military Retired Pay
8899 E 56th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46249-1200

Annuitant Pay correspondence:
Defense Finance and Accounting Service
U.S. Military Annuitant Pay
8899 E 56th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46249-1300

Mail received at the old mailing addresses after May 1 has been forwarded to the new address. The telephone and fax numbers will remain the same.

28 APRIL 2017
In this issue:

Government Shutdown Avoided for One Week
FRA Staff and VA Secretary Discuss Agent Orange Blue Water Navy Issue
Post 911 GI Bill Fee Proposed
Improvements to the TRICARE Dental Program
VA Accountability Office Created
VE Day Anniversary

Government Shutdown Avoided for One Week
As Newsbytes gets distributed, it appears Congress will avert a government shutdown by passing another (third) Continuing Resolution (CR) that extends government funding at FY 2016 levels for one week. The current CR expires at midnight Friday, April 28. Reports indicate budget negotiators are close to agreeing on the final FY 2017 budget but a complete agreement is yet to come. Some, but not all, of the $30 billion defense supplemental requested by the Trump administration will be in the final bill. Members can weigh in on this issue through the FRA Action Center by asking that Defense is adequately funded in the FY 2017 budget.

FRA Staff and VA Secretary Discuss Agent Orange Blue Water Navy Issue
FRA Assistant Director of Veteran Programs Brian Condon, along with representatives from other veteran organizations, met with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin to discuss the effects the toxin Agent Orange had on Vietnam veterans who served on ships in the Da Nang and Nha Trang Harbors. The discussion ranged from the shallow harbors and how sediment at the bottom was stirred up by ship propellers to how traces of the toxin can still be found there two decades later. The toxin found its way on board ships in the harbors through rainwater wash off, currents, tides and the numerous other ways.

Representatives stressed that authorizing Blue Water Vietnam Veterans be put on the presumptive list for conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure. It would not be granting any new benefits, but rather returning benefits previously granted to Vietnam Veterans. The VA Secretary can authorize this by regulation. At the conclusion of the discussion, Secretary Shulkin was provided a packet of letters written by Blue Water Veterans. There were more than 30 one-page, written letters that spoke about financial struggles and personal frustrations with the long and agonizing wait. The authors urged the secretary to authorize the VA to provide care for those who served. Shulkin listened inquisitively and asked pertinent questions. He acknowledged there was much he had to learn about the Agent Orange Blue Water Navy issue, but he considered it important and he wanted to learn more. FRA will continue to also work on a legislative remedy and members are urged to use the FRA Action Center.

Post 911 GI Bill Fee Proposed
This past week, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC) Chairman Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.) proposed a $100 monthly fee for as long as two years for recruits to be eligible for the Post 911GI Bill education benefits. The fee would raise $3 billion in additional revenue throughout a 10-year period. The HVAC subcommittee hearing on veteran’s education benefits scheduled for this week was cancelled. HVAC Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.) stated, “With U.S. military operations expanding around the world, asking our troops to pay for their own benefits while we are still engaged in conflict sends the wrong signal and is the wrong thing to do.” FRA believes veterans have earned this benefit with their military service. No legislation has been introduced…yet. The Association will continue to monitor the legislative process and report on developments as they occur.

Improvements to the TRICARE Dental Program
Beginning on May 1, 2017, United Concordia Companies, Inc. will manage the TRICARE Dental Program (TDP). Beneficiaries don’t need to take any actions to continue their coverage.

The TDP is a voluntary dental benefit for eligible active duty family members, National Guard and Reserve members.

Several improvements to the TDP include:

• The annual maximum TDP will increase from $1,300 to $1,500
• The TDP will consider sealants a free and preventive treatment, and no longer include a 20 percent cost share
• The auto-enrollment age for family members will be lowered from age four to one
• For most beneficiaries, the monthly premium rate will decrease
• The active duty dental program and TRICARE Retiree Dental program will not change.

The TDP will continue to provide access to a network of civilian dentists around the world. However, some dentists currently in the TDP network may choose to leave, while new ones will join. Those currently enrolled may need to find a new dental provider. To find participating dentists click here. You may nominate dentists to participate by clicking on “Nominate Your Dentist” and completing a simple form located on the page linked above. For more information regarding the TDP, please visit the TRICARE or United Concordia websites.

VA Accountability Office Created
President Trump signed an Executive Order creating the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Office will advise VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin about how to discipline poorly-performing VA employees. In a released statement VA Secretary Shulkin said the office will work to ensure, “that we identify systemic barriers that prevent us from making the right decisions and also make sure that we’re honoring the commitments that we have to our whistleblowers who come forth and identify issues so that there’s not retaliation.” Shulkin added, “Congress also needs to change the law to allow the VA to more expeditiously discipline and fire problem employees.”

The House has already passed the legislation “VA Accountability First Act” (H.R. 1259), sponsored by Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.) and supported by FRA. This bill would increase the authority of the VA Secretary to discipline and fire workers while still protecting the legal rights of those employees. It is unclear whether the measure can gain enough Democratic support to pass the Senate.

VE Day Anniversary
This Monday marks the 72nd anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe) when the world celebrated the surrender of Nazi Germany during World War II. Celebrations took place throughout the country. President Harry Truman dedicated the victory and celebrations to President Franklin Roosevelt, who had died just a month before victory in Europe was achieved.

21 APRIL 2017
In this issue:
Pass FY 2017 Defense Budget Now!
Future of Arlington Cemetery
House Subcommittee Reviews VA Retention Problems
Interim Report on Federal Government’s Veteran’s Employment Initiative
Pass FY 2017 Defense Budget Now!
Most of the federal government is currently being funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR), which was signed by President Barack Obama on December 10, 2016. The CR expires April 28, just four days after members of Congress return from their recess. Under a CR, funding remains at the previous year’s (FY 2016) levels. Nearly half way through FY 2017 and we are still at FY 2016 spending levels. When Congress returns it should pass a permanent FY 2017 Defense budget. The FY 2018 budget request that begins on October 1, 2017 will be submitted by the Trump Administration sometime in May.

Members are invited to use the FRA Action Center on our website and ask your legislators to pass an adequately funded Defense budget for FY 2017.

Future of Arlington Cemetery
According to estimates from the Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery, the cemetery will run out of burial space by 2050. The Advisory Committee, established October 2010, is tasked with providing independent advice for extending the availability of Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). The Advisory Committee has been considering altering or restricting the eligibility criteria for burial at ANC, in order to extend accessibility to the cemetery for future generations.

FRA surveyed members on their thoughts and concerns regarding burial eligibility at ANC. A very large majority (92 percent) believes that ANC should pursue all possible options for acquiring additional land before making any restrictions on the current eligibility. More than 67 percent want to reserve a set amount of space for Medal of Honor recipients and/or active-duty deaths. More than 61 percent of respondents disagree with the statement: “The need to keep ANC operational for 100 years or more by significantly restricting eligibility is a more important consideration than requiring older veterans and military retirees, currently planning on burial at Arlington, to change their plans.”

ANC is managed by the Department of the Army and does not fall under any of the rules and regulations of veteran’s cemeteries administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. ANC is a living monument to those who have served, and should remain an active place for reflections as a testament to future generations as how we remember and honor those who served. FRA understands this is an important issue for Shipmates and will continue to report on developments as they occur.

House Subcommittee Reviews VA Retention Problems
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Health recently held a hearing to address how best to recruit and retain a highly-qualified clinical workforce to treat veterans who have complicated health care needs. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system employs 317,000 people at nearly 1200 locations throughout the country. While care in many locations is high quality and timely, overall it is inconsistent.

During the hearing, it was revealed staffing shortages are prominent throughout the system, particularly in five critical clinical occupational areas: physicians, registered nurses, physician assistants, psychologists, and physical therapists. A recent Government Accounting Office report predicted the staffing shortage in these, as well as in other areas will only get worse before they get better. The report noted that weak human-resources-related control practices are impacting the VA’s ability to meet veterans’ health care needs.

At the hearing, VA staff acknowledged past hiring practices were unduly burdensome and under the MyVA program, the hiring process has improved and is more efficient.

Interim Report on Federal Government’s Veteran’s Employment Initiative
Syracuse University issued an interim report about the Federal Government’s Veteran’s Employment Initiative (VEI) in January 2017. In 2009, post 9/11 veteran’s unemployment stood at 10.2 percent–more than a percentage point higher than non-veterans. As first reported in the November 13, 2009 “Newsbytes,” the White House announced an Executive Order (13518) establishing the VEI to convert the federal government into a model veteran employer. The plan emphasized to federal agencies the importance of recruiting, training and increasing employment opportunities for veterans. It also calls for providing recently hired veterans assistance in adjusting to their new work environment.

The Executive Order created the federal Council on Veterans Employment. The interagency council will advise the president and director of the office of personnel management on veteran’s employment. The order also established a Veterans Employment Program Office in most federal agencies. These offices are responsible for finding veteran employment opportunities within their agencies and provide feedback from veterans employed by the agencies.

The interim report recognized positive outcomes from VEI for the federal government. Since 2009, veteran employment in the federal government has sharply increased. The report also notes there clearly remains room for interagency learning to sustain and to improve upon the gains made since 2009. Information from the interim report was obtained for the period of time from May to December of 2016 and can be found here. A final comprehensive VEI report is scheduled to be completed later this year.