LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
House VA Subcommittee Hearing Examines Proposed Legislation
The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) conducted a legislative hearing on Thursday, March 29th to examine eight bills currently being considered by that subcommittee for passage. Verna Jones, The American Legion’s Director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation (VA&R), provided testimony at that hearing. A full copy of the written testimony for the hearing is available online at http://www.legion.org/legislative/testimony
The bills under consideration ran the gamut of dealing with Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA), providing for ongoing care of the Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines, improving the claims process, supporting the Missing in America Project, and recognition for veterans on Veterans Day. Director Jones recognized the Missing in America Project’s importance, noting, “We thank the Chairman and this committee for establishing a draped chair in recognition of America’s Missing in Action and POWs at every hearing, but we cannot forget those service members missing in our own country. The work of the Missing in America Project is working to ensure any unclaimed remains of veterans receive the burial honors befitting the sacrifices made for this nation.”
Regarding proposed legislation to permanently and regularly link veteran COLA increases to Social Security, Director Jones agreed the intent of the proposed legislation (H.R. 4142) from Chairman Jon Runyan (NJ) was important to remove some of the annual worries for veterans as to whether or not Congress would pass a COLA bill for them. However, she noted some important concerns of the Legion. “We have to make sure veterans are still receiving consideration about their own unique needs and aren’t simply ‘lumped in’ with Social Security or some other group. Veterans have their own concerns, whether they’re more rural than urban, or what medical costs they have to face, that may not be reflected in the standard CPI used for Social Security.” She continued, “We have to make sure we’re considering their unique needs.”
The American Legion supported a measure to call for a national two minutes of silent reflection on Veterans Day for the sacrifices of our nation’s veterans, as well as a bill that would enable the Battle Monuments Commission to provide ongoing care for the Clark Cemetery in the Philippines, currently being maintained only by a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post locally, with the help of volunteers including local Legionnaires.
The American Legion raised objections to the RAPID Claims Act (H.R. 2377) which aims to create an expedited process for fully developed claims in the disability system, as this has already been implemented by VA pursuant to P.L. 110-389. While further investigation to ensure it is functioning to its designed purpose could be helpful, changing the statute related to this process by law could jeopardize the current process used by VA. The intent of the legislation is good; however, VA has already implemented the intent of the law relatively successfully, and so the necessity of an additional law may be superfluous at this point.
The American Legion also raised objections to a bill that would require judges serving on the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) to live within a 50 mile radius of Washington, DC. Given the current state of electronic communications and the fact that all proceedings of the CAVC are conducted in a fully electronic environment, and given that the CAVC does not pay travel for its judges (they are required to pay their own travel expenses), the most important concern about judges should be their ability to interpret the law and decide cases. Through research The American Legion discovered there is already a judge serving on the court who lives in Florida and commutes of his own volition for all necessary appearances and this has not impacted performance in any way.
Both Chairman Runyan and Ranking Member Jerry McNerney (CA) cited to The American Legion’s clear delineation of opinion on the legislation and recognized the importance of the input. Chairman Runyan expressed an interest in working further in the future to ensure any permanent solution for veterans’ COLA better reflect the needs of veterans.
Senate Appropriations Subpanel Examines DOD Medical Programs
On March 28, The American Legion attended the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing which reviewed the Department of Defense (DOD) medical programs. The witnesses were the Service Surgeons General: General Charles Green, Air Force; General Patricia Hororho, Army; and Admiral Mathew Nathan, Navy.
Items from their testimonies of interest to The American Legion were:
• President Obama’s proposed TRICARE increases: All three Surgeons General supported President Obama’s proposals to increase TRICARE costs to service members and retirees, or, in the case of TRICARE for Life, to begin enrollment fees, as well as increases in drug co-pays, deductibles, and other cost sharing increases. In general when asked to give reasons for this support, their responses were that the increases were necessary to sustain the benefit over the long term and that the out-of-pocket costs were below the cost-sharing percentage that existed in 1995. In addition, they also claimed that the Armed Services were increasing their efficiency of operations by reducing administrative costs, improving access, and introducing cutting-edge technology to provide better patient care.
• Treatment of PTSD, TBI, depression, and other mental health programs: First, regarding PTSD, the Surgeons General said that mental health assessments were getting better due to the fact there were more completions of the Post-Deployment Health Reassessment review that service members are to have upon their return from a deployment. These service members are screened for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) about four times per deployment through the use of a questionnaire and an interview with a trained mental health provider. New PTSD programs mentioned by the Surgeons General included pre-combat exposure preparation training and psychological first-aid for those exposed to potentially traumatic events.
• Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Regarding this subject, the witnesses testified that they continue to conduct TBI testing and those collected tests are put in a data repository. The services continue to study TBI and look for new diagnostic and treatment techniques. The Army said it had also initiated a policy that directed that any soldier who sustained a mandatory reportable event (which means a head trauma from a training activity or contact sport in addition to a combat head trauma) must undergo a medical evaluation including a mandatory 24 hour down time followed by medical clearance before returning to duty. Another program initiative is a TBI screening program is being conducted with polytrauma patients.
The witnesses also added that the services are trying additional therapy programs to help with these health problems and with other problems as well, like pain management. These new programs include therapies such as acupuncture and meditation (to be used with or without pain medication therapies) for wounded warriors, tele-health counseling, and caregiver training.
All witnesses said one of their biggest challenges remains with integrating electronic health records, both within the three services and with VA and private health providers. They did say DOD and VA are sharing more health information than in the past and are continuing to standardize patient data sharing technologies.
Veteran Jobs Caucus Press Event – “I Hire Veterans” Initiative
On Wednesday, March 28, senators, service members and representatives of veteran service organizations – including The American Legion – gathered in the U.S. Capitol building to kick off the “I Hire Veterans” initiative. This initiative encourages members of the Senate, as well as businesses across the nation, to show their commitment to employing veterans by displaying a logo proclaiming “I Hire Veterans”. The Senate Jobs Caucus consists of 29 senators from both parties who have at least one veterans working of their staff, and who have committed to hiring veterans and veterans’ family members.
National Journal Policy Summit on the DOD Budget
On Thursday, March 29, the National Journal held a policy summit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. to discuss the fiscal year 2013 Department of Defense (DOD) budget. Present to discuss this issue were House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (WI), and Ranking Member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD). Rep. Ryan stated “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice, I think there’s a lot of budget smoke and mirrors in the Pentagon’s budget”, a statement which has drawn criticism. The statement was in reference to a belief that the Pentagon’s budget reflected an artificial spending cap, rather than being strategy-driven. Ryan’s plan, which passed in the House on Thursday, would eliminate the automatic sequester of DOD spending.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Letters of Support
On March 30, The American Legion sent a letter of support to Sen. Bill Nelson (FL), for S. 2239, entitled the “Veterans Skills to Jobs Act of 2012.” This measure would provide for federal certification of veterans who have been qualified for licensure through relevant military training. Federal certification and licensure of veterans who have received relevant training will ensure that veterans are able to smoothly and quickly transition between military and civilian employment.