March 27, 2015
In This Issue:
- VFW Testifies at Choice Program Hearing
- VFW Testifies on Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization
- VFW Testifies on Economic Opportunity Bills
- VFW Participates in Steering Committee Roundtable
- VA Expands Eligibility for Choice Program
- Legislation on the Move
- Bergdahl Charged With Desertion
- Afghanistan Troop Level Remains Constant
- All Four Services Now Offering COOL Assistance
- Pennsylvania Desert Shield/Storm Bonus to Expire
- VFW Testifies at Choice Program Hearing: On Tuesday, Senior Legislative Associate Carlos Fuentes testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The hearing reviewed the Choice Program’s distance criteria. Fuentes discussed the importance of ensuring eligibility for non-VA care is veteran centric and clinically based. Before the hearing, VA announced it would change the way it calculates distance from “as the crow flies” to driving distance when determining Choice Program eligibility. Fuentes acknowledged the efforts of VFW members in prompting the change. Read the VFW’s testimony and watch the hearing here:http://www.veterans.senate.gov/hearings/the-veterans-choice-act_exploring-the-distance-criteria032415.
- VFW Testifies on Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization: Senior Legislative Associate Brendon Gehrke testified before the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee on Thursday regarding recommendations made by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. In his testimony, Gehrke stated that “we believe that it is not only fair to provide all service members with some retirement compensation, especially those who deploy several times to combat zones before exiting short of 20 years; but it’s our patriotic duty to prepare all service members for retirement.” Congress is likely to act on some of the Commission’s recommendations later this year. To read the VFW’s testimony about the Commission’s 15 recommendations, click here:http://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=103194.
To view the hearing, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imQ97wYLfhs.
- VFW Testifies on Economic Opportunity Bills: On Tuesday, the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing to discuss pending legislation. VFW Deputy Legislative Director Aleks Morosky testified, offering the VFW’s positions on bills that would allow student veterans to use GI Bill benefits to cover college application fees, direct VA to consider time spent by reservists recovering from injuries toward GI Bill eligibility, and commission a survey of GI Bill beneficiaries on their college experiences, among others. Additional bills supported by the VFW include legislation to remove the cap on the VA Home Loan Program, reauthorize VA’s homeless veterans programs and allow VA to reduce the retirement benefits of certain employees who are later found to have committed felonies while working at VA. We will provide updates on these important bills as they continue to move through the House. To read the full transcript and watch a webcast of the hearing, click here: http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/legislative-hearing-0.
- VFW Participates in Steering Committee Roundtable: On Wednesday, Raymond Kelley, VFW’s director of National Legislative Service, participated in the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee roundtable discussion on veterans’ transition priorities. These roundtables are an opportunity to speak directly with congressional leadership as they formulate their priorities for the year.
Kelley explained the need to make the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) a military life-cycle program, allowing service members the opportunity to receive information and training on post-service needs as early as 6 months after entering service and maintain access to that information after they leave service. Kelley also discussed the need for a change to current GI Bill eligibility, allowing service members who do not quality for full GI Bill eligibility because of time-in-service restriction to qualify for full benefits if they are a Purple Heart recipient.
- VA Expands Eligibility for Choice Program: On Tuesday, VA announced it would change the way it calculates distance when determining eligibility for the Choice Program. Currently, VA calculates travel using “as the crow flies,” or straight line distance. Due to veterans’ concerns and the VFW’s work on this issue, VA will soon align the Choice Program with its Beneficiary Travel Program, which calculates the shortest route to a VA medical facility using driving distance instead of straight line distance. The change will take effect after VA publishes an interim final rule through the federal register, which it intends to do soon. The change is estimated to expand eligibility to an additional 300,000 veterans who drive more than 40 miles to their nearest VA medical facility. However, distance will continue to be calculated to the nearest VA medical facility, which includes a community based outpatient clinic, regardless if that facility provides the care a veteran needs. Read the VFW National Commander John W. Stroud’s statement here: http://www.vfw.org/News-and-Events/Articles/2015-Articles/VFW-Statement-Regarding-VA-%E2%80%98Crow-Flies%E2%80%99-Rule-Change/.
Read more about VA’s announcement here: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2687.
- Legislation on the Move: On Tuesday, the House unanimously passed H.R. 216, the Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Planning Reform Act of 2015, which requires VA to estimate and report to Congress its budgetary needs for four fiscal years and establish a Quadrennial Veterans Review to ensure VA has a strategy to meet the future needs of America’s veterans. The VFW supports this important bill and looks forward to its swift consideration and passage in the Senate. Read the VFW’s testimony here: http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/legislative-hearing-on-hr-189-hr-216-hr-245-hr-280-and-hr-294.
This week the House and Senate both passed budget resolutions laying out their respective budget priorities. Both bills include nearly $167 billion in fiscal year 2016 for VA, which is nearly $3 billion less than the Independent Budget’s recommendation for fiscal year 2016. Both budgets make increasing health care access for veterans a policy priority. The Senate bill includes other policy priorities, such as eliminating the SBP-DIC offset; improving benefits for transitioning service members; improving research for PTSD, TBI and toxic exposures; and expanding Choice Program eligibility for veterans who travel more than 40 miles to receive their health care from VA.
Also this week, the House and Senate advanced their respective budget resolutions that would stick to the statutory caps of $523 billion for defense programs in the coming year. The Senate plan raises the limit on war related funds to $96 billion, providing additional resources for the Pentagon without the $523 billion cap. While the defense proposals in the House and Senate budgets match, the two chambers still have to send representatives to negotiate non-defense provisions in the bill.
Although these resolutions provide for increased funding for DOD, the VFW is still concerned that neither version directly addresses the need to end the budget sequestration. We will continue to press Congress to end sequestration as the budget process moves forward.
7. Bergdahl Charged With Desertion: The Army has charged Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with one count each of Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, “Desertion with Intent to Shirk Important or Hazardous Duty,” and Article 99, “Misbehavior Before The Enemy by Endangering the Safety of a Command, Unit or Place.” Bergdahl, then a private first class, was held captive by the Taliban for almost five years after he allegedly left his post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. He was released in a controversial five-for-one prisoner swap on May 31, 2014. The case now goes to an Article 32 hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury, to decide whether the charges are appropriate to refer to a General Court-Martial. Bergdahl faces a maximum penalty of life in a military prison, as well as being stripped of rank and the forfeiture of all pay and allowances. Read more at: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=128453&source=GovDelivery.
8. Afghanistan Troop Level Remains Constant: President Obama announced this week that 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2015. Troop levels had previously been scheduled to drop from 9,800 to 5,500 beginning Oct. 1. The decision to extend current levels was based on a request from the Afghan president, who had asked for some flexibility in U.S. drawdown timelines in order to accelerate internal reforms and ensure that Afghan national security forces are better led, equipped, trained and focused on their mission. Read more at: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=128449.
9. All Four Services Now Offering COOL Assistance: The four military services are now offering COOL (Credentialing Opportunities On-Line) assistance to help soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines find information regarding civilian certification and licensing requirements related to their Military Occupational Specialties. The transition planning tool allows troops, regardless of MOS, to focus on what they need should they decide to use their military training and experience in a civilian market. For respective service COOL information, go to:
· Navy: https://www.cool.navy.mil/usn/.
· Marine Corps: https://www.cool.navy.mil/usmc/.
- Pennsylvania Desert Shield/Storm Bonus to Expire: The deadline for submitting applications for the Persian Gulf Conflict Veterans Benefit Program is Aug. 31, 2015. Pennsylvania veterans or beneficiaries of deceased veterans could be eligible for:
- A one-time benefit of $75 per month for each month (or major fraction thereof) of active service in the Persian Gulf Conflict Theater of Operations during the period of Aug. 2, 1990 to Aug. 31, 1991. The maximum compensation is $525.
- An additional one-time benefit of $5,000 if the service member was declared a prisoner of war at any time while on “active service” during the covered period.
- Beneficiaries may also be eligible to receive an additional one-time benefit of $5,000 if the service member died while on “active service” during the covered period, or died as a result of service-connected wounds, diseases or injuries sustained during such active service, as certified by DOD or VA.
Proof of residency, military service, and the receipt of the Southwest Asia Service Medal are required, among other documentation. For more information or to apply, go to: http://www.milvet.state.pa.us/DMVA/Docs_BVA//PGVB/Digest.pdf.
To sign up new veterans’ advocates, click here: http://capwiz.com/vfw/mlm/signup.htm.