Legislative Division Update 07-20-2012

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION UPDATE

LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS

Congressional Updates

Both the House and Senate were in session this week. Both chambers will remain in Washington through the end of the month, when they will escape from “inside the Beltway” back to their home states and districts for the summer district work period, which is August 6 through September 7. The Commander’s Testimony before the joint House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees is scheduled for October 3.

House, Senate Pass Veterans’ Certification-Licensure Bill

On July 9, the House of Representatives voted on legislation to benefit veteran jobseekers. The bill was H.R. 4155, entitled the “Veterans Skills to Jobs Act.” The bill was approved by a recorded vote of 369-0. This bill would direct the head of each Federal department and agency to treat relevant military training as sufficient to satisfy training or certification requirements for Federal licenses. During the bill’s consideration on the House floor, Rep. Jeff Denham (CA) – the sponsor of H.R. 4155 – stated, “If you've had the best training in the world, you ought to be able to get the best jobs in the world; and this body ought to make sure that certification, that licensure is a seamless process. If you leave Active Duty today, you ought to have work tomorrow in the private sector utilizing that very same training.”

The measure was then forwarded to the Senate, which passed H.R. 4155 on July 11 by unanimous consent. The bill now goes to the White House for the President’s signature.

Senate Passes Omnibus Veteran Bill

On Wednesday July 18, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed H.R. 1627, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, a comprehensive, bipartisan, bicameral legislative package.

Among its more than 50 provisions covering various health, benefits, housing, burial and insurance programs, is a landmark program under which the Department of Veterans Affairs would provide health care to people suffering from long-term effects of exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Up to 750,000 people who lived or worked on the base from Jan. 1, 1957, through Dec. 31, 1987, would be eligible for care if they have a disability or disease linked to exposure to drinking water found to contain carcinogens in what has been called the largest recorded environmental incident on a domestic Department of Defense installation.

Diseases presumed to have a connection to the contaminated water are: Esophageal, lung, breast, bladder or kidney cancer; leukemia; multiple myeloma; myelodysplasic syndromes; renal toxicity; hepatic steatosis; female infertility; miscarriage; scleroderma; neuorobehavorial effects; and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The bill was first blocked by Sen. Jim DeMint (SC) due to concerns over fraud, but his issues were addressed in an amended version. The bill will now go to the House for passage, and the bill could reach President Obama by the end of the summer.

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS

 

Disability and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee holds hearing on the impact of Military Sexual Trauma

On Wednesday, July 18 the Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (HVAC) conducted a hearing entitled “Invisible Wounds: Examining the Disability Compensation Benefits Process for Victims of Military Sexual Trauma.”  The hearing was broad in scope and explored testimony from a combination of veteran service organizations (VSOs), psychiatric experts, an actual victim of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and representatives of both the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  Awareness of the problems experienced by victims of MST is increasing, and it is estimated that as many as 19,000 incidents of MST occur in the military annually.  While the percentages of women affected by MST are higher than for men, the actual numbers compiled by DOD actually show that close to equal numbers of men and women are affected by the assaults because of the larger numbers of men in the military.  This is a problem that potentially affects all service members.

The American Legion provided testimony from Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation (VA&R) Assistant Director Lori Perkio.  Ms. Perkio’s testimony stressed the significant problems with locating records of such incidents in service.  As many incidents go unreported, or have records of the reporting destroyed after a set period of time from two to five years, it can be next to impossible to prove the occurrence of the event in service, one of the three key components necessary to obtain service connection for residual effects of the MST event, such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder PTSD). 

Perkio’s testimony further recognized VA recently faced a similar challenge in the claims of combat veterans for PTSD.  In 2010, VA modified their regulations related to proving the occurrence of stressors in PTSD cases related to combat or experiences in combat zones consistent with the fear and dangers of combat.  With a diagnosis of PTSD from a VA doctor related to stressors consistent with combat in a combat zone, VA waives the need to prove the existence of the stressor in those PTSD claims.  This is in recognition of the difficulties of record keeping in combat.

Assistant Director Perkio noted the similar challenges in record keeping relating to the stressors associated with MST, and called on VA to adapt their regulations in a similar fashion.  While The American Legion urges VA to use their internal regulatory authority to enact these changes sooner than the legislative process would allow, there are bills currently introduced in both the House and Senate which would legislatively change the MST procedure for PTSD to mirror the current combat procedure.

In the House, the bill is H.R. 930, introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (ME-1) with 34 cosponsors.  The companion bill in the Senate, S. 1391 was introduced by Senator Jon Tester (MT) and cosponsored by Senator Mark Begich (AK).

Tom Murphy, VA’s Director of Compensation Service testified that VA recognized the challenges in this portion of the claims system.  He spoke of the study VA had conducted and noted in the past there was a noticeably higher denial rate at least 25 percent greater than claims for other causes of PTSD.  Due to recent tracking of the issue and claims of increased training and emphasis on this issue, Director Murphy stated current tracking shows the approval/denial rates are much more closely in line with other types of claims.  Furthermore he stressed VA’s approach to the problem is the recent introduction of improved claims processing routing which would put special needs cases like MST PTSD claims into special “lanes” to receive extra scrutiny and attention, thus improving the quality rating and ensuring that existing regulations which require greater deference to alternative evidence sources are being adhered to.

Speaking on behalf of the DOD, COL Alan Metzler, Deputy Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office cited steps DOD is taking to address the rising concerns about MST within the armed forces.  The DOD focus is on overcoming barriers to reporting and care seeking, and COL Metzler emphasized the seriousness of the issue, stating every incident must be investigated under the direction of an officer of O-6 rank (Colonel or Captain) to ensure the convening authority for court martial action if required.  Furthermore there are new programs in place to ensure treatment for those affected, yet protect the anonymity of those still concerned about the stigma associated with sexual assault.

Unfortunately, while these anonymous programs can be excellent tools in ensuring service members get much needed treatment for the psychological aftereffects of rape and other assaults, the very anonymous nature of the programs only exacerbates the problems service members will later face as veterans attempting to apply for service connection for these aftereffects.  Assistant Director Perkio from The American Legion stressed this very point in underlining the need for reform to the evidentiary process in PTSD claims related to MST cases.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform examines claims backlog

On Wednesday, July 18th, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations held a hearing to examine the claims backlog in VA. 

The Honorable Allison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, took the opportunity to highlight some of the reforms which are currently being enacted in the VA system in an attempt to mitigate some of the issues which result in backlog, including: redeploying 1,200 employees to target and tackle backlog, with a goal of completing 100,000 claims by the end of 2012; improving training in areas targeted at reducing backlog; implementation of a new operating model directed at changing the organization structure in order to better address backlog and more rapidly process claims; improving collaboration with DoD in order to ensure a more seamless transition; improving access to benefits information through eBenefits and online claims filing; and ending reliance on paper-based claims and rolling out a new, digital, paperless system to process and track claims.  Ms. Hickey noted that the backlog problem has arisen due to an increase in claims in recent years.

Other witnesses noted that there are several problems which can be pointed to in order to gain a grasp on the nature of the problem. The first noted was the budget process in recent years, which has forced VA to work under continuing resolutions, leading to inadequate budgeting for VA.  Second, under continuing resolutions, VA does not hire personnel in order to fill vacancies.  This leads to staffing shortages, which increase the likelihood of backlog.  Overall, he noted that the fundamental problem is that VA has yet to devise a work process which completes claims in a timely manner with high quality.

Additionally, it was pointed out that the biggest challenge facing VBA is their rising workload, with the number of veterans filing for disability compensation more than doubling over the past 10 years.  Meanwhile, VA has neglected to update its information technology system in order to meet these demands.  He went on to note that regardless of the process and technologies employed, the key to success is helping veterans receive timely and accurate decisions on benefits claims.

American Legion National Legislative Council

The Legislative Division continues the task of compiling the National Legislative Council Consolidated Activities Report for 2011-2012. The forms have been emailed to each Department Vice Chairman. Department Adjutants and National Executive Committeemen were also sent a copy.

NEC Resolution No. 28, passed October 19-20, 1994 reads in part: each National Vice Chairman of the Legislative Council shall submit an annual report on the Council member activities in his/her Department to the National Legislative Council Chairman not later than July 31 each year. We need 100 percent of the reports returned in order to compile the Report for the Pre-Convention National Executive Committee meeting. If you have any questions or need further assistance, please contact Jeff Steele at (202)-263-2987 or jsteele@legion.org.

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 35. To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion to the Senate measure – has accumulated 89 cosponsors.

Please contact your representatives’ 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.

Letters of Support

The American Legion on July 13 sent a letter of support to Sen. Richard Burr (NC), giving our organization’s support for S. 3353, legislation to amend title 38, United States Code, to require States to recognize the military experience of veterans when issuing licenses and credentials to veterans. It is critical that a clear idea is established about how military skills, education, and training are evaluated by state credentialing boards.

On July 17 The American Legion sent a letter of support to Sen. Dean Heller (NV), giving our organization’s support for draft legislation, entitled the “Veterans Small Business Protection Act of 2012.” This measure would amend title 38, U.S.C., to treat small businesses bequeathed to spouses and dependents by members of the Armed Forces killed in the line of duty as small businesses owned and controlled by veterans, for purposes of the VA’s contracting goals and preferences.

 

On July 18 The American Legion sent a letter of support of the “Thompson/Braley Amendment” to the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 5856).  The Thompson/Braley Amendment would require the Department of Defense, when purchasing flags with the monies from the NDAA, to purchase only flags made entirely in the United States from “articles, materials, or supplies 100% of which are grown, produced or manufactured in the United States.”

Only July 19 The American Legion sent a letter of support to Representative Cliff Stearns (FL) for his amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 5856).  The Stearns amendment mandates that no funds made available by this NDAA may be used by the Secretary of Defense to implement an enrollment fee for the TRICARE for Life program. 

 

The American Legion Legislative Division

(202) 263-5752

For Week Ending 07-20-12

 

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