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Congress still facing crowded agenda

Congress still facing crowded agenda

 

The House and Senate are still trying to negotiate a final deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” A number of plans to use increased taxation, budget cuts, and other processes have been advanced, but there has been no overall agreement to date.

President Signs Veterans’ COLA Bill
On November 27, President Obama signed Public Law 112-198, legislation to provide a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 1.7% for eligible veterans and dependents. The traditionally non-controversial bill was held up in late September by an unnamed senator who subsequently removed the hold on this bill. The veterans COLA affects several benefits, including veterans’ service-connected disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. The government projects over 3.9 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits in this fiscal year. The COLA is designed to offset inflation and other factors that lead to the rising cost of living over time. The COLA rate matches the annual increase provided to Social Security recipients and is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.

Senate takes up 2013 Defense Authorization bill
This week the full Senate debated its version of the FY2013 Defense Authorization bill (NDAA), which is expected to wrap up Friday. The House version of the bill passed in May. Over 200 amendments are under consideration, although far fewer will end up as part of the final package.  

Several Legion supported amendments have been offered, but it is not yet clear whether they will be added to the NDAA yet. They include an amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson (FL) to eliminate the SBP/DIC offset.  His amendment would also restore SBP eligibility to widows who had previously transferred the earned benefit to one or more children.

Sen. Jim Webb (VA), Sen. Scott Brown (MA) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT) introduced a new bipartisan, compromise Stolen Valor Act. The amendment clarifies that anyone who represents themselves as having been awarded any decoration, medal, ribbon or other device authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces for the purpose of tangible benefit or personal gain, may be fined or imprisoned or both. The Legion supported earlier bills by the senators which this new Act is based on.

Some potentially troubling amendments offered include one offered by John Cornyn, (TX), would require the VA secretary to submit a plan to Congress to reduce the current backlog of pending claims for veterans’ benefits.  The plan would require VA comment on a policy implemented in Texas using state employees to work with VA in developing claims. The American Legion opposes this use of state employees in the federal operations of VA.

Additionally, Senators Jack Reed (RI) and Marco Rubio (FL) have offered an amendment that would increase copays for retail and mail-order prescriptions. The Reed-Rubio amendment would tie TRICARE copay increases to the cost of living adjustments for TRICARE beneficiaries. The Reed-Rubio amendment aims to protect military beneficiaries from excessive out-of-pocket increases in their co-payments. In brief, it would stop the steep out-of-pocket prescription drug costs planned by the Department of Defense for TRICARE beneficiaries.  

However, The American Legion has made it known that we hope there are no provisions contained within the NDAA that raise TRICARE fees and/or costs in any way.  The American Legion’s position is clear: we steadfastly oppose any degradation of veteran or retiree benefits in this, or any future policy or legislative acts.

White House Veto Threat
On Thursday, the White House threatened to veto the Senate NDAA unless some significant changes are made. A veto threat also hangs over the House version.

Among the White House’s objections was the Senate Armed Services Committee’s rejection earlier this year of an administration proposal to dramatically increase TRICARE fees and copayments.
Instead of the fee hikes proposed by the Pentagon, the committee’s plan would continue to cap TRICARE increases at no more than the cost-of-living adjustment in military retired pay, usually just a few percentage points, a compromise reached during last year’s consideration of the NDAA.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget said that move would reduce potential savings by an estimated $1.8 billion in 2013 and $12.9 billion over the next five years. “DoD needs these savings to balance and maintain investments for key defense priorities,” the policy statement says.

The administration also “strongly objects” to proposed limitations in the Senate bill on closing or moving Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units. “These provisions would force DOD to operate, sustain, and maintain aircraft that are in excess to national security requirements, as defined by the new defense strategy, and are not affordable in an austere budget environment,” the statement says.

Also objected to is a provision that would require any percentage reduction in military personnel levels to be matched with cuts in the federal civilian and federal contractor workforces, a move made by the Senate committee to ensure service members are not singled out for cutbacks if budgets get tight.

The administration “believes the size of the civilian workforce should be determined based on workload and funding, not on arbitrary comparisons to the military. To comply with this legislation, the [Defense] Department would need to significantly divest workload and impose workforce caps,” the White House statement says.

House Panel Holds Contentious Hearing with Department of Veterans Affairs Officials
“The Truce is over,” declared Chairman Jeff Miller (FL), as he blasted VA’s Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould in a hearing on Wednesday, November 28 addressing VA overspending at training conferences. “It lasted less than 24 hours. Expect more oversight and investigation.” Miller concluded the hearing which had turned contentious after simmering on the edge of boiling for nearly two hours. At issue was overspending highlighted by two training conferences the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found to have totaled $6.1 million in outlays in Orlando, FL in 2011.

Chairman Miller began the hearing with polite but tightly-contained frustration, citing over 91 requests for information from VA over the past year, of which only 16 had been answered by the time of the hearing. Widescreen TVs at the hearing displayed the VA’s canteen services website showing photo albums of food and beaches on a trip to Italy. Despite requests for information on VA foreign travel that have gone unanswered, VA did later determine the photos were from an employee’s private vacation and while inappropriately placed on the VA website did not constitute any expenditure of taxpayer money, despite comments from an employee accompanying the pictures noting “research is hard but somebody’s got to do it.”

With regard to a request for clarification on an outstanding request for information over 106 days old, Deputy Secretary Gould further stated they could not provide information as to whether a contract for training in Hawaii totaling over $1 million was an open or closed bid contract. He also could not provide information as to how a training conference at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in 2010 had been omitted from a complete report of all training conferences.

Representative Corrine Brown (FL), the committee’s Ranking Member, expressed a concern that VA officials were being overwhelmed with information requests and prevented from doing their actual work of running VA. She even advanced the notion that the amount of time VA has been forced to spend sending information to Congress was “ludicrous” although not all of her fellow Democrats shared that notion. Representative (and now newly-elected Senator for the 113th Congress) Joe Donnelly (IN) stated “I don’t consider it ludicrous; I consider it to be doing our job [of oversight].”
Rep. Tim Walz (MN) took a balanced approach, noting that nobody was saying VA should not be spending money on travel and training for their employees, but that there was room for oversight and clearly there were problems with the previous model. “An average Fortune 500 company spends $1,300 per employee for a training event,” Walz commented, “VA is spending an average of $3,300. That needs to be fixed.”
The closing clash between Miller and Gould stemmed from Gould’s accusation that aggressive comments from Rep. Bill Flores (TX) delivered a “slap to VA’s 320,000 hardworking employees.” Miller countered that neither he nor any member of the committee from either party had slapped any of the VA employees, but directed their ire and contempt towards VA’s leadership.

The hearing continued an ongoing battle between VA and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee over requests for information that saw a unanimous vote of the HVAC to subpoena information from VA regarding pharmaceutical purchasing, after they had repeatedly failed to meet deadlines when dealing with the oversight requests from the committee.

House Leadership, Committee Chairmanships Unveiled
On Thursday, November 29 the House Republican Conference ratified the assignment of committee chairmen. It is expected subcommittee chairs will be announced by individual chairmen over the next week. In addition, the House leadership for the upcoming 113th Congress was also announced.
House Majority Leadership for the 113th Congress
Speaker of the House: John Boehner (OH)
Majority Leader: Eric Cantor (VA)
Majority Whip: Kevin McCarthy (CA)
Conference Chairman: Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA)
NRCC Chairman: Greg Walden (OR)
Policy Committee Chairman: James Lankford (OK)
Conference Vice-Chair: Lynn Jenkins (KS)
Conference Secretary: Virginia Foxx (NC)
Sophomore Representative: Tim Scott (SC)
Freshman Representative: Ann Wagner (MO)
Committee Chairmen
Agriculture: Frank Lucas (OK)
Appropriations: Hal Rogers (KY)
Armed Services: Howard “Buck” McKeon (CA)
Budget: Paul Ryan (WI)
Education and the Workforce: John Kline (MN)
Energy and Commerce: Fred Upton (MI)
Financial Services: Jeb Hensarling (TX)
Foreign Affairs: Ed Royce (CA)
Homeland Security: Mike McCaul (TX)
Intelligence: Mike Rogers (MI)
Judiciary: Bob Goodlatte (VA)
Natural Resources: Doc Hastings (WA)
Oversight and Government Reform: Darrell Issa (CA)
Rules: Pete Sessions (TX)
Science, Space, and Technology: Lamar Smith (TX)
Small Business: Sam Graves (MO)
Transportation and Infrastructure: Bill Shuster (PA)
Veterans’ Affairs: Jeff Miller (FL)
Ways and Means: Dave Camp (MI)
NOTE: Chairmanship selections for the House Administration and Ethics Committees will be announced at a later date.

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Update on Flag Amendment Bills
Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (UT) office continues to solicit additional cosponsors for Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 19, a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration. Its text states simply: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” The cosponsor total for the Senate legislation stands at 37. To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion bill to the Senate measure – has accumulated 91 cosponsors, with the recent addition of Rep. Doug Lamborn (CO).
Please contact your representative’s and senators’ offices, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. If they are already cosponsors, be sure to thank them for their support.

NATIONAL ECONOMIC COMMISSION
TOPIC 1: ECONOMY
According to Kiplingers, though a better economy is likely in 2013, the gains won’t be clear until summer. Problem No. 1 is, of course, avoiding a nosedive off the fiscal cliff before year-end, when tough government spending cuts kick in and the lower tax rates of the past decade expire. Deadlock on the issue would spell recession ahead, paring up to four percentage points from GDP growth in 2013. We still expect a deal to buy more time, however, with lawmakers putting off the tough decisions until a new Congress is seated. It will probably give them till spring to act.

Uncertainty about the fiscal cliff is a significant cloud. Indeed, Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody's Analytics, says, "The only missing ingredient [for a stronger economy next year] is the political will to address our fiscal issues in a responsible way."

In any case, growth in early 2013 is bound to slow, dipping from a bit better than 2 percent in the second half of this year to only about 1.5 percent for the first half of 2013. Tighter fiscal restraints -- whether due to higher taxes, federal spending cuts or both -- will curb gains. Just ending the payroll tax break (a fair bet) would cut about $1,000 from the average household's income, for example, and trim 0.5 percent from GDP.

Don't look for much lift from overseas demand, either. Europe is likely to remain in a recession through the first half of the year; even powerhouse Germany is flagging. Plus China's slowdown will ripple through Asia. So U.S. export growth will be curbed, held to only about 5 percent for the year.

A similarly weak 3 percent bump for business spending is in the offing as well. While job growth and demand remain sluggish, there's little or no incentive for firms to release much of the $1.7-trillion stash they're sitting on to expand factories and offices or to buy new equipment.

As for government's usual contribution to growth, it won't deliver much. Federal lawmakers in both parties agree on the need to rein in Uncle Sam's budget, and state and local governments are just regaining their equilibrium after a very difficult past few years. Though revenues are headed up again, they are in no mood to launch major spending projects.

The need to replace and rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy is likely to deliver a small upward lift in the first quarter of next year. But it won't be significant, adding perhaps a tenth of a percentage point to growth. Moreover, it will probably only offset a small slide in the fourth quarter of 2012, from the loss of business in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

In the second half of 2013, look for considerably more pep in the economy. As the housing market picks up steam, it will add wealth to the economy and nurture consumer spending. The Federal Reserve will keep mortgage rates near all-time lows, encouraging building and buying. Plus, as the year unfolds, banks will become more eager to make loans, easing an obstacle to residential construction. By year-end, GDP growth should be chugging along at a much healthier 3 percent pace, though for 2013 as a whole, another yearly gain in the 2 percent neighborhood is likely. All told, we expect about 2 million net new jobs, enough to push the jobless rate to about 7.5 percent and to keep consumer spending on an upward path, albeit a weak one -- no better than this year's 2 percent gain, maybe less, for this giant chunk of the economy.

Table A-5. Employment status of the civilian population 18 years and over by veteran status, period of service, and sex (not seasonally adjusted).

 

 

 

HOUSEHOLD DATA
Table A-5. Employment status of the civilian population 18 years and over by veteran status, period of service, and sex, not seasonally adjusted

[Numbers in thousands]

Employment status, veteran status, and period of service

Total

Men

Women

OCT
2011

OCT
2012

OCT
2011

OCT
2012

OCT
2011

OCT
2012

 

Gulf War-era II veterans

 

Unemployed

240

209

211

164

29

44

Unemployment rate

12.1

10.0

12.3

9.2

10.9

15.5

 

National unemployment rate is 7.9 percent (October 2012). Gulf War II Veterans unemployment rate is 10 percent.   Currently, the unemployment rate for women veterans is 15.5 percent (down from last month of 19.9 percent).  The Economic Division continues to work with DOL, DOD and the Office of Personnel Management to discuss and identify trends, challenges that face women veterans in finding meaningful employment.

In discussing the alarming rate of unemployment amongst the women veterans with the Department of Labor, they’ve cited multiple factors that may be contributing to hardships facing women veterans. Perhaps the most obvious is that more women than ever are currently serving in the military, so more female veterans are returning to civilian life. Department of Labor estimates that 15 percent of homecoming U.S. troops are women.

However, aside from numbers alone, women veterans have historically gravitated to jobs in education and the public sector. As these two professions suffer due to unavoidable cutbacks in government, women are disproportionately affected. Hence the high percentage of unemployed women veterans can be attributed to the loss of public sector jobs and cut-backs in state funding for education. Women veterans could potentially benefit from programs like veterans’ preference for government jobs, but drastic cut-backs in the public sector resulted in continued job losses in the last three years.  

The private sector has added 3.5 million jobs since the recovery started, but only 28.8 percent of these jobs have gone to women. Recent employment initiatives, such as job training programs for veterans and tax incentives for private employers who hire veterans, overwhelmingly favor private sector work and have not been effective in bringing women veterans into the private sector. Furthermore, the looming fiscal cliff and possible on-set of sequestration, continues to prevent the private sector from hiring across the board.  

The Bureau of Labor Statistics within the Department of Labor is also identifying trending that leads them to believe that many women veterans like their male counterparts may be drawing unemployment compensation as they begin using federal assistance to go to college.

TOPIC 2: EDUCATION
On Nov. 27-29, the Economic Division participated as an advisor to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities Blue Ribbon Task Force for Military and Veterans Education meeting in Kansas City. The task force’s mission is to ensure that all service members, veterans and military family members utilizing their earned education benefits are provided with the quality education they deserve at every institution of higher education.

These recommendations and best practices will be to find quality solutions to improve the quality of institutional academic and programmatic delivery for military and veteran students. Such recommendations will be lifted up for all institutions of higher education to consider and employ in their service to these populations.

TOPIC 3: MEETINGS
On Nov. 27, the Economic Division was present at the USDA’s Risk Management Agency’s (RMA) Veteran’s Month Observance.  There Legion representatives made a presentation about the landmark Memorandum of Understanding that was signed between the USDA and The American Legion.  The members in attendance were informed of the three main parts of MOU which included a veterans’ program, veterans’ employment and veteran small business piece.  The Economic Division was able to give RMA the outsider’s perspective on what the USDA was doing for the veteran’s community.  The keynote speech was given by the Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Karis T. Gutter, who is also a Marine Corps veteran, who related his story of sacrifice, transition and the importance of giving back to the veterans’ community.  Under Secretary Gutter, outlined the importance of the MOU and looked to The Risk Management Agency to do their effort in recruiting veterans to meet USDA Secretary’s goal of 17 percent veteran hires in FY 13.

On Nov. 27, the Economic Division and members of the Small Business Task Force met with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to discuss the Patriot Express Loan Pilot Program for veterans looking to start their own business.  Patriot Express Loans (PEL) are offered by Small Business Administration’s (SBA) network of participating community banks and feature one of SBA’s fastest turnaround times for loan approval and an enhanced guaranty and interest rate up to $500,000 to small businesses owned by veterans, reservists, national guardsmen and their spouses.  The PEL can be used for most business purposes, including startup, expansion, equipment purchases, working capital, inventory or business-occupied real estate. In the meeting there were analysts Christine Ramos, Daniel Kaneshiro and Financial Market and Community Investment Director William Shear.  The American Legion Small Business Task Force was represented by Sue Malone, Billy Jenkins and Kirk McLaren.  Topics were discussed in depth on the matter of the effectiveness of the pilot program, the rate of denial, common reasons for denial, fraud and abuses, and improvements that must be made.  As the local banks are responsible for approving and verifying a veteran’s eligibility for such a loan, there are few fraud and abuses associated with the PEL.  The banks have the obligation to determine a veteran’s eligibility because they lose money if SBA determines at a later date that a veteran was not eligible and revokes the guaranty.  The veterans’ small business community had a very high opinion of the pilot program and would like to see it extended beyond 2013.  However, there were some changes the Legion would like to see.  Those changes include having protections in place that would reduce SBA fees and lifting the $500,000 cap on the PEL.  Also, the Legion would also like to have protections in place that would prevent the tolling of interest and deferment on payments when a service member is deployed. Lastly, Resolution No. 299 – passed during the 94th National Convention, states that the Legion supports legislation which would direct and authorize funds to the SBA to re-establish a direct loan program for eligible veterans, National Guard and Reservists to either establish, purchase or expand a small business.

On Nov. 28, the Economic Division met with Jared Golden, Legislative Assistant to Senator Susan Collins (ME), to discuss the progress of the senator’s amendment to S.3457, the Veterans Jobs Corps Act, which would enable Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) to gain increased opportunities for federal surplus property to educate, train and improve the quality of life for veterans. This amendment would enable veterans to gain full access to Defense Department and civilian surplus property distributed through State Agencies for surplus property by making VSOs their own category of eligibility. This Senate bill is a companion bill to H.R. 6114, sponsored by Representative Dan Benishek (MI). At this point, Senator Collins office is working to garner more support to get this amendment through the lame duck session.  The Economic Division will continue to support the passage of this legislation.

On Nov. 29, the Economic Division met with Christopher Toppings, Legislative Assistant to Senator Richard Burr (NC), to discuss support of S. 3614, which directs the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to establish a pilot program to award grants to nonprofit organizations that primarily serve veterans and low-income individuals. S. 3614 is companion legislation to H.R. 6381, which passed the House as part of H.R. 6361, the Vulnerable Veterans Housing Reform Act, on September 19, 2012. We discussed veterans’ immense housing needs and challenges. Also noted was these housing challenges are solvable conditions with grant support from S. 3614 that would bolster and expand the rehab and repair efforts of housing nonprofits and veteran’s service organizations. Currently, this legislation has been added as an amendment (3165) to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The Economic Division will continue to reach out to the Senate for passage of this housing legislation.

On Nov. 29, the Economic Division had a conference with Ryan Reid, Founder, and Mike Wray, Business Development Director of Bidspeed a Naval Academy graduate and veteran.  Mr. Wray and Mr. Reid walked the Economic Division through their online platform designed to assist small businesses with federal contracting.  The Bidspeed software platform was created from a Small Business Administration (SBA) grant.  There is currently nothing comparable in existence that provides the same comprehensive services that would assist a small business from searching for a federal contract, initiating paperwork, tracking and providing templates for responses.  Using this platform Bidspeed staff can provide valuable metrics system to the federal procurement in terms of holding onto data that shows which small businesses went after a contract and when a contract is not awarded to a small business, the data collected during the bidding process could hold government contracting officers accountable.  There is much potential in streamlining the bidding process and for accountability with the increased usage of this platform, which might be useful to the veteran small business community.  The Economic Division will continue to discuss with Bidspeed the possibility of sharing this platform in the future.

On Nov. 30, 2012, the Economic Division met with Christie Judith, Agency Director of Field Development, MassMutual Greater Washington, and Kate Norman, Recruiting Director, MassMutual Greater Washington, to discuss Legion programs/services along with strategies to find veterans to employ in the financial arena.  Our agenda is to continue to engage the public and private sectors on the benefits of hiring and retaining veterans in their workforce.  

TOPIC 4: VETERAN HOMELESSNESS
As the nation is nearing the halfway point toward the goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) along with partners at the Department of Veterans Affairs is focusing on innovations to accelerate that progress. In May 2012, USICH released a newsletter that detailed the many programs beyond HUD-VASH that work together to assist veterans experiencing homelessness. USICH's Special Advisor to the Executive Director, Dr. Josh Bamberger, has detailed another innovation at VA: the Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team (HPACT).

HPACTs focus on the primary healthcare needs of homeless veterans in coordination with housing programs. Now up and running in over 30 sites with another eight sites in development or planning, the HPACT is built at the intersection between two successful healthcare models, the Healthcare for the Homeless Primary Care Clinics and the Patient-Centered Medical Home. This model is tailored to the needs of homeless veterans by creating a hub in primary care facilities so that veterans can access housing and stabilization services that have recently been developed and expanded across the VA system. Connecting these two interventions makes it possible for veterans in need to access services that will both help them get housed and experience successful outcomes in supportive housing. To read more about how HPACTs are improving healthcare delivery for veterans, click here.

TOPIC 5: CAREER FAIRS
The American Legion, in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), has undertaken a new initiative to combat the rising unemployment rate amongst our nation’s veterans.  Nearly one year into this partnership the U.S. Chamber of Commerce HOH team has finished booking 400 venues and met their goals for this year.  The partnership will continue into its second year, past March 2013.  As the veterans’ unemployment rate continues to drop the strategies for hosting these events have changed.  In 2013 the Chamber will only host 200 events so each event will be carefully selected based upon the states’ veteran unemployment rates and where large veteran populations reside.  The other key point of focus will be on feedback.  In the second year, HOH will invest more time and money into data collection and metrics systems to measure the impact the program has made.

The American Legion has met with HOH staff on numerous occasions in the last few months to strategize where the 2013 hiring events will be hosted and what the Legion will provide as a continued partner in 2013.  To this end, The American Legion continues to avail our staff resources, posts organization, color guard and volunteers to the HOH Initiative as the organization has done last year.  In 2013 it was decided that the focus would be on states with the largest numbers of unemployed veterans such as WA, VA, TX, TN, PA, OH, NC, NY, NJ, MI, IN, IL, GA, FL, CA, AZ, NV, WI, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.  We are reaching out to all Departments in these listed states to host a job fair during their state convention if possible.  Also, a special thank you goes out to the Department of California and the esteemed Newport Harbor American Legion Post Color Guard Team for volunteering to post the colors at our hiring event in San Diego on December 13th. This week, work continued in our weekly conferences to ensure that the hiring events occurring at Phoenix, AZ, Toms River, NJ, New York City, NY, Puerto Rico and Nationals Park, Washington, DC are still on track.

On Nov. 13, The American Legion took part in the Hiring our Heroes Job Fair held at the Capital Mall in Jefferson City, Missouri. A total of 41 employers were present and 72 veteran jobseekers attended this event. 36 veteran jobseekers were interviewed onsite during the event and there were 2 on-the-spot hires and 10 other provisional hires. A special ‘thank you’ goes to Steve Brothers, Steve Hamby, The American Legion’s National Economic Commission Member from the Department of Missouri, Shirley Janes and The American Legion Post 5 Color Guard team for posting the colors. This event would not have been possible without the Legion’s volunteer support.  Other partners involved were Chamber of Commerce, Department of Labor's Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (DOL-VETS), the Missouri Committee of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), the Missouri Career Center, State of Missouri Office of Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

On Nov. 27, an expedited hiring event was hosted at the George P. Vanderveer Post 129 in Toms River, New Jersey. This event would not be possible without the hard work and effort from The American Legion’s Department of New Jersey’s Economic Chairman, Bob Looby, and the volunteers from Post 129.  This event catered especially to those veterans who were displaced or out of work in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  The career fair is hosted by the Department of New Jersey and the U.S. Chamber, in coordination with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, the Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs, NBC News, and the New Jersey Committee.  

TOPIC 6: SMALL BUSINESS
This week, a U.S. Federal Claims Judge in Washington, DC, ruled against a bid protest filed by a Maryland business – stating that the Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t violate a 2006 law by awarding an emergency notification service contract without first considering bids from veterans. The award was one of at least 18 that the Government Accountability Office said were unlawful. This ruling was the first time the claims court considered the contracting provisions of the VA’s Veterans First Law, which directs the agency to give preference to veterans when awarding contracts.  If the agency changed its position, it might steer as much as $3 billion in federal contracts a year toward small companies owned by veterans, according to data compiled by Bloomberg government last year.  Basically, this ruling states that VA doesn’t have to give veterans small businesses preferences for all contracts, rejecting the position of the GAO.

The federal judge said the law didn’t mandate that veteran-owned firms trump preexisting agreements with vendors that typically offer bulk discounts.  The GAO, a federal agency that arbitrates contracting disputes, at least 18 times directed the VA to determine whether there were at least two qualified veteran-owned small businesses that could perform the work at a reasonable price before turning to other vendors, according to a letter the agency sent to Congress this month.  The VA refused each time.  The lawsuit was brought by Waldorf, Maryland-based Kingdomware Technologies Inc., which alleged the VA failed to research whether veteran-owned businesses could provide an IT product and services at a San Francisco VA facility.  Earlier, the GAO had sided with the technology vendor.

Based upon this development, The American Legion will be putting out a press release today to detail our displeasure of this ruling regarding the Veterans First Law within VA. The American Legion passed a resolution in 2011 that endorsed VA’s efforts “to ensure that contracts awarded pursuant to the Veterans First Program are awarded to companies that truly are entitled to receive these contracting benefits.”  The following year, the Legion passed another resolution supporting legislation that would guarantee “equal parity for all veterans in all small business government contracting programs, thus ensuring that no veteran procurement program is at a disadvantage in competing with any other government procurement program established by law.”  

National Security
1.  Senate wants report on Tricare Prime cuts
Amid concerns about the looming elimination of Tricare Prime in some areas, the Senate voted Thursday to require the Pentagon to report on the future availability of affordable managed care for Tricare beneficiaries throughout the U.S.

By voice vote and with no debate, the Senate approved an amendment to the 2013 defense authorization bill asking for a report early next year identifying how many people could be forced into the more expensive Tricare Standard fee-for-service health program, the locations of those affected by the potential loss of Prime and what is being done to ease the transition.

Offered by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., the amendment is a response to Defense Department plans to eliminate Tricare Prime in several areas, beginning April 1 in Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon and the Reno, Nev., and Springfield, Mo., areas.

The changes appear to be the result of newly awarded Tricare contracts for managed care that exclude some areas from Prime.

For the estimated 30,000 people who might be affected beginning April 1, the difference between Tricare Prime and Tricare Standard can be significant because out-of-pocket costs under Standard are higher.

Active-duty families have no co-pays under Prime but would be responsible for 20 percent of outpatient care costs under Standard. For military retirees and their families, Prime has an outpatient co-pay of $12 and an annual enrollment fee of $269.26 for individuals and $538.56 for families. Tricare Standard has no enrollment fee but has a 25 percent co-pay for retirees and their families.

The Heller amendment doesn’t prevent DoD from changing Prime coverage areas, but it asks for more details that could provide lawmakers ammunition to block or reverse the change.
For example, the amendment asks DoD to estimate how much more beneficiaries would have to pay, how much money defense officials expect to save and the exact locations that would be affected.

Details on estimated DoD savings and beneficiary costs also would give opponents of the plan an idea of how much money they would need to reverse course.

The House version of the defense bill has no similar provision, mainly because the House completed work on its bill in May, before the Defense Department’s plans to eliminate Tricare Prime in some areas were known.

2. Female troops sue to serve in combat
Four female service members filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the Pentagon's ban on women serving in combat, hoping the move will add pressure to drop the policy just as officials are gauging the effect that lifting the prohibition will have on morale.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, is the second one this year over the 1994 rule that bars women from being assigned to ground combat units, which are smaller and considered more dangerous since they are often in battle for longer periods.

The legal effort comes less than a year after the ban on gays serving openly was lifted and as officials are surveying Marines about whether women would be a distraction in ground combat units.
"I'm trying to get rid of the ban with a sharp poke," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who was among the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit and was injured in 2007 when her Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

Hunt and the other three women said the policy unfairly blocks them from promotions and other advancements open to men in combat. Three of the women are in the reserves. A fourth, Marine Corp Lt. Colleen Farrell, leaves active duty this week.

Women comprise 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. The lawsuit alleges that women are barred from 238,000 positions across the Armed Forces.

At a Washington, D.C., news conference, Pentagon press secretary George Little said the Defense Department was making strides in allowing more women to experience combat. He said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has opened about 14,500 combat positions to women.

"And he has directed the services to explore the possibility of opening additional roles for women in the military," Little said. "His record is very strong on this issue."

American Civil Liberties Union Ariela Migdal, who represents the four women, said Panetta's actions weren't enough. She called for an end to the combat ban. "These tweaks and minor changes on the margins do a disservice to all the women who serve," she said.

3. Senate backs quicker Afghanistan withdrawal
Reflecting a war-weary nation, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday for an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting.

The strong bipartisan vote of 62-33 sends a clear message to President Obama and the military as they engage in high-stakes talks about the pace of drawing down the 68,000 U.S. troops, with a White House announcement expected within weeks.

Although the vote was on a nonbinding amendment to a defense policy bill, its significance could not be discounted amid the current discussions. Thirteen Republicans, including Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top GOP lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, backed the measure.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., its chief sponsor, argued that al-Qaida is stronger in other parts of the world and that nation-building in Afghanistan has gone off track. His measure endorsed Obama’s timetable to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014 but pressed for a quicker pace, without specifying how that would be achieved.

“It is time to end this war, end the longest war in United States history,” Merkley said during Senate debate.

Foreign Relations
1.  U.S. and Chinese militaries hold exercise to build trust
The U.S. and Chinese militaries on Friday wrapped up a modest disaster-relief exercise hailed as a tentative trust-building step amid growing suspicions between the Asia-Pacific region's largest armed forces.

While not a full-fledged operation, the two-day exercise at People's Liberation Army barracks outside the city of Chengdu consisted of U.S. and Chinese officers sitting around a table facing a flat-panel video screen and discussing how they would respond to an earthquake in a fictional third country.

Though this was the eighth meeting to discuss disaster relief, it was the first time both sides discussed a joint response to a simulated disaster. The leading officers called that a step forward in building familiarity and trust.

U.S. Major General Stephen Lyons said the exercise began the groundwork for the day when the two militaries will operate side-by-side in an actual humanitarian operation.

"I think it's very conceivable. If there is a country out there, and there inevitably there will be, that will have a natural disaster, and they call for international help, if U.S. forces and Chinese forces respond, then indeed we'll find ourselves working together in the field," Lyons said in comments to reporters.

While Washington and Beijing have talked about boosting military cooperation for more than a decade, distrust runs high and disagreements over Taiwan, North Korea and China's assertive claims to disputed territories in the East and South China seas remain potential flashpoints. China's robust military buildup and Washington's decision to redeploy more weaponry and troops to the Asia-Pacific region have added to the tensions.

The modest scope of the table-top simulation underscores the underlying hesitation and distrust on both sides, particularly in Beijing, which tends to view military exchanges as a form of diplomatic leverage to be severed at times of tension.

This year's exchange comes as China has been flexing its military muscle and raising regional tensions. Last week China staged the first successful landing of planes on its newly commissioned aircraft carrier, a sign of its rapid progress toward deploying the ultimate symbol of naval power and a potent tool for projecting military force far from its shores.

Aware of the potential for conflict between the militaries, both sides have in recent years tried to find ways to cooperate. Their armed forces have conducted joint anti-piracy drills in the Gulf of Aden. U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in Beijing this week renewed an invitation for China to take part in large U.S.-led multinational naval exercises next year, though China has not said if it would participate.

2. Lawmakers unveil new round of Iran sanctions
Senators pressed ahead Thursday on a new set of tough sanctions against Iran's domestic industries as they seek to cripple the Islamic republic's economy and thwart its nuclear ambitions.

Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., unveiled a package of penalties that would designate Iran's energy, port, shipping and ship-building sectors as entities of proliferation and sanction transactions with these areas. The legislation also would penalize individuals selling or supplying commodities such as graphite, aluminum and steel to Iran.

The punitive measures build on the sanctions on Tehran's oil industry that the two lawmakers have shepherded through Congress in the past year.

The sanctions are contained in an amendment the two lawmakers hope to add to a far-reaching defense policy bill that the Senate was debating and could wrap up by week's end. Congress has overwhelmingly backed previous efforts by Menendez and Kirk.

The legislation also would designate the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its president as human rights abusers for broadcasting forced televised confessions and show trials.

The United States and European Union have imposed tough sanctions on Iran that have weakened its economy. But Tehran has found ways to bypass the penalties, such as Turkey's use of gold to pay for Iranian natural gas imports. The Menendez-Kirk measure would allow the president to impose sanctions in cases of the sale or transfer of precious metals, targeting efforts by Iran to circumvent the penalties.

Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert and executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there is strong bipartisan support for intense sanctions, with the goal of pushing the Iranian economy to the brink of economic collapse.

The president has 90 days from the legislation's enactment to act. The bill does include the authority to waive the sanctions based on national security.

3. POW/MIA Update
• AIRMEN KIA FROM VIETNAM WAR IDENTIFIED
On October 23, 2012 the remains of a U.S. serviceman, killed in action from the Vietnam War, were identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

Air Force Airman 1st Class Jerry M. Wall, 24, of Jacksonville, Texas, will be buried Oct. 26, in San Antonio. On May 18, 1966, Wall and four other crew members were aboard a C-123B Provider aircraft that crashed while carrying out a nighttime flare-drop mission over Binh Dinh, South Vietnam. Nearby U.S. ground troops reported seeing Wall’s aircraft hit by enemy ground fire and crash. Heavy enemy presence in the area prevented immediate search and rescue efforts. Later that day the remains of three of the five crew members were recovered.

From 2007 to 2012, joint U.S./Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) teams conducted interviews and excavations of the crash site in Binh Dinh Province. Department of Defense casualty and life support experts identified the location as Wall’s possible loss site. The teams excavated the site and found human remains, military equipment, a military identification tag bearing Wall’s information, and aircraft wreckage of a C-123.

In the identification of the remains, scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, such as radiograph, dental records and mitochondrial DNA–which matched Wall’s mother.

• AIRMAN MISSING FROM WWII TO BE HONORED
On October 24, 2012 the remains of a U.S. serviceman, who went missing in November 1946, were returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. William S. Cassell, of Mt. Airy, N.C., will be buried on Oct. 28, in Amelia, Va. On Nov. 1, 1946, Cassell and seven other crew members were aboard a B-17G Flying Fortress that went missing after departing from Naples, Italy, bound for Bovington, England. During the months following the loss, search and rescue attempts proved unsuccessful and the remains of the crewmen were declared non-recoverable.

In 1947, a French military unit operating in the French-Italian Alps, near Estellette Glacier, found the wreckage of a U.S. aircraft at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet. The French team recovered human remains from the site which were turned over to U.S. officials. They also reported that much of the ice-covered wreckage would likely not emerge for 30 years, after the glacier descended the slope. Due to the technology limitations of the time, the remains could not be attributed to individuals and were interred as a group, representing the B-17G crew, at Arlington National Cemetery.

From 1983 to 1999, as the glacier descended, additional remains and personal effects were recovered and turned over to U.S. officials.

In 2010, due to advances in technology, scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) reevaluated the evidence and used mitochondrial DNA— which matched that of Cassell’s mother— in the identification of his remains.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died. Today, more than 73,000 remain unaccounted for from the conflict.

Military Review Boards
This week, our Military Review Boards staff assisted 27 former service members with new, upcoming and pending petitions prepare their case for review by the Military Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military Records.  Case development included: 25 phone calls, 23 emails, 5 correspondences, 3 service officer inquiries and hearing review.

One of our success stories for this week was a former Marine Corps Sergeant, now 38 years of age, separated General (Under Honorable Conditions) in November 1996 following 4 years and 11 months of total active duty service due to misconduct.

The Applicant contended that it was inequitable for him to continue to suffer the effects of a General (Under Honorable Conditions) discharge, and he requested that his post-service conduct be considered when determining whether to upgrade his discharge.

After considering the facts and circumstances unique to this case, the Navy Discharge Review Board (NDRB) concluded that his post-service conduct demonstrated his in-service misconduct, which was clearly an isolated incident, was an aberration and not indicative of his overall character.  

The NDRB voted unanimously to change the Character of Service to Honorable and the Narrative Reason for Separation to Secretarial Authority for full relief.

NATIONAL VETERANS AFFAIRS AND REHABILITATION COMMISSION
Deputy Director for Healthcare
Health Policy Unit
On Tuesday, November 27, Warren Goldstein, Senior Field Service Representative from The American Legion attended a VHA VSO briefing at the Department of Veterans Affairs.   The purpose of the meeting was to brief the Veteran Service Organizations on VA progress in the following areas: Release of Handbook 1004.04, State-Authorized Portable Orders Summary Document, Mental Health Hiring and Access Initiatives Update, Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in VA and VA Mobile Health App Family Caregiver Pilot

Release of VA handbook 1004.04: State-Authorized Portable Orders Summary Document
Dr. Robert Petzel-Undersecretary for Health spoke briefly about the release of VHA handbook 1004.04 (SAPO):
• VHA handbook 1004.04 is a portable authorization sheet listing a veterans wishes in the event that they cannot make medical decisions for themselves
• SAPO’s are specialized forms, out-of hospital do not resuscitate (DNR) forms that are authorized by state law that translates a patients preferences for end-of-life treatment decisions.

Mental Health Hiring and Access Initiatives Update
• Dr. Mary Schohn- Director, VA Mental Health Operations & Michael Culpepper, Chief Officer, Workforce Management & Consulting presented on the status on the hiring VA mental health providers. VHA has contracted with Workforce Management and Consulting (WMC) to assist in the hiring process nationwide of mental health providers to be employed in the field.  WMC works as advisor to VA Senior Leadership and VHA staff on the progress, status and follow-up in regards to the hiring process.

Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in VA:
Dr. Stephen Ezeji-Okoye Chair, VHA Federal Advisory Committee on CAM  
• CAM is defined as a group of medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not part of conventional medicine
• CAM is focused on wellness, disease prevention, and individual health promotion to co-exist with conventional medical treatments and practices that currently exists within VA healthcare
• CAM is being used for treatment and wellness for PTSD and TBI to increase recovery times.  CAM treatment therapies include:  Acupuncture, Massage therapy, hypnotherapy, spinal manipulation, healing touch, music & art therapy, pet therapy, etc.  CAM wellness therapies include: mediation, yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, biofeedback and relaxation/stress management therapy methods.

VA Mobile Health App Family Caregiver Pilot
Kathleen Frisbee, Director, VHA Web and Mobile Solutions presented on the status of the VA mobile health applications pilots being used by caregivers. The applications will be put on Apple I-pads and delivered to caregivers who signed up for the pilot program in January 2013.

On November 29, 2012, Veterans Affair and Rehabilitation National Field Service Representative Roscoe Butler attending the Mental Health Services and Veteran Service Organization and Advocacy Group Meeting.  Dr. Antoinette Zeiss, Chief Consultant, Mental Health Services announced she will be retiring on December 28, 2012 and while a VA actively recruit to fill her vacancy, Dave Carroll will be appointed acting Chief Consultant.

Presenter presented information in the following order:
• Ann Dunn, Deputy Director, VHA Homeless Veterans Program – Overview of VHA Homeless Program
• Heather Ansley, ESA, MSW, Vice President of Veterans Policy  - Overview of Vets First, a program of United Spinal Association
• Dawn M. Jirak, Assistant Director, Veterans Health Policy, VFW – Overview of the VFW
• Dr. Antoinette Zeiss – Overview of VHA Mental Health Services

At the meeting, Dr. Jeff Burk distributed a draft copy of VHA Policy Handbook 1163.06 entitled “Intensive Community Mental Health Recovery Service” and asked if everyone could review the draft and offer any comments and or recommendations with the next two weeks.
Assistant Director for Policy and Research
Heart Study Conference Call
Brian Bertges is going to be on a conference call with Beryl Love from AMVETS, Stephanie Burns, the Chief of Voluntary Services for the DC VAMC, and Dr. Kheirbek about a heart study being conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday, December 3rd.

DoD Meeting
Brian Bertges attended a meeting with the Department of the Army’s Transition Strategic Office on Thursday, November 29th. The meeting focused on employment, Army Career & Alumni Program (ACAP), and Transition Assistance Program (TAP) briefings so that veterans that transition out of the Army will have the opportunity for gainful employment after they have been discharged.

Board of Veterans’ Appeals
During the week ending November 23, 2012 the Board of Veterans’ Appeals reached dispositions on 127 American Legion represented appeals.  Of those dispositions, 69.3% of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran.  In 30 cases, the Board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion’s arguments. In 58 cases, The American Legion was able to point out errors in the development of the veteran’s claims which mandated corrective action under the law.  Of the total number of dispositions, 33 (26.0%) were outright denials.

Also during this period, the BVA Appeals Unit reviewed, prepared written Informal Hearing Presentations (IHP), and/or orally argued 90 veteran’s appeals. These claims included originals, remands, as well as specialty cases (Advance on Docket, Independent Medical Opinions, Court Remands, etc.). The BVA unit handled numerous telephone inquiries and provided consultations with veterans, VSO’s, and Congressional Offices. The administrative team completed 152 phone inquires during this period. The appeal representatives provided assistance for three (3) walk-in veterans for their respective VA Central Office Hearings.

Insurance, Pension and Debt Management
The VA&R VA Insurance unit reviewed and processed 235 applications for new insurance coverage, of which 38 were for Supplemental insurance for totally disabled veterans in the Service-Disabled insurance program, along with 137 disability and settlement claims on other veteran’s VA policies. Further case development included 138 other insurance inquiries or transactions, 51 phone calls with veterans, family members and VSOs, and 106 veteran insureds were contacted by mail on their policies, insurance options and action deadlines. There were also 62 direct contacts with VA personnel in regards to correcting or having additional actions taken on veteran’s accounts.

The Philadelphia VA&R Pension unit processed 28 new claims for Veterans or Death pensions, along with receiving, reviewing and preparing 524 case actions for support of on-going pension benefits. Casework included processing 279 additional transactions and case inquiries to VA, performing 194 audits of Rating reviews and 86 phone contacts with claimants and VSOs with 29 personal contacts and 7 appeals.

The VA&R Pension offices in St. Paul and Milwaukee processed 218 new claims for Veteran’s pensions and Death pensions, and presented supporting casework material on 148 claims already in progress, while also processing 96 inquiries and pension transactions and 557 rating review audits. Phone contacts with claimants and VSOs amounted to 112 calls and there were 7 appeals handled for the two weeks ending November 28, 2012.

Appeals Management Center
Vincent Covert, Appeals Representative, signed off on approximately 25 Veterans claim waivers. Mr. Covert spoke to veterans, claimants, and Department Service Officers by telephone approximately 30 times. Mr. Covert reviewed 20 rating decisions for accuracy and completeness and reviewed 10 partial grants. Lastly, Mr. Covert interfaced with rating coaches, claims assistants, and veteran service representatives approximately 75 times during the past week. Process approximately 25 detailed memos to finalize veteran’s claims.

Lee Southerland, Appeals Representative, signed off on approximately 35 claim waivers. Spoke with approximately 10 veterans via telephone. He also signed off on approximately 75 rating decisions. Mr. Southerland spoke with approximately 10 veterans via telephone.

Wanda Kennedy, Administrative Secretary, answered approximately 80 phone calls from veterans and Department service officers, which included returning phone calls to veterans. Ms. Kennedy scanned 150 pieces of VA correspondences (letters, SSOCs, VA Rating Decisions, etc). Ms. Kennedy also mailed approximately 120 items of correspondences to DSOs in different departments of The American Legion. She also assisted numerous raters, claims assistants, and veterans’ service representatives.

Western Region BDD Office (Salt Lake City, UT)
The Western BDD Office reviewed 26 BDD claims with 151 issues. Each claim required reviewing the rating, C&P examination, and service treatment records. Additional research was required on some cases. One claim was questioned and discussed with VA Rating Team Coaches. The BDD office also received 17 phone calls from veterans and Department Service Officers throughout the country requesting the status of a claim or had questions concerning a rating. The office provided an update for the status of the claim or provided options concerning the rating. Additionally, three veterans visited the office with general VA benefit questions. The office received and reviewed 58 pieces of VA correspondence. Hans Michalke also attended a Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP) meeting.

 

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