The defense authorization bill passed by Congress on Dec. 15 includes several American Legion-backed provisions, including an increase in research funding for Gulf War illnesses, a measure that will expand health-care access for servicemembers, tying TRICARE fee increases to military retirement pay increases, and a study for the creation of a Unified Medical Command.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes $10 million in funding for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs on service-connected illnesses of Gulf War veterans – a 25 percent increase from last year. "That's pretty remarkable in the current fiscal environment," said Tim Tetz, The American Legion's Legislative director. "The House approved that funding level last summer, and we worked hard to get the Senate to agree." Tetz said the Senate, initially, provided no funding for the research.
Provisions of the Servicemembers' Telemedicine and E-Health Portability (STEP) Act are also part of the NDAA, and will go far in extending mental health-care services to active-duty personnel and to veterans – especially those living in rural areas. The STEP Act will provide much-needed flexibility by removing the requirement for health-care providers to be licensed by the state(s) in which their patients are being treated.
"You have this awkward kind of situation where a VA or DoD health-care provider in Chicago needs to treat some patients via telemedicine in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska," Tetz said. "Under the current rules, you've got to have licenses from all three of those states, in addition to Illinois, where you're physically located. But that will all be changed by the STEP Act provisions, so that telemedicine and e-health applications can be used across state borders."
Early on in the debate over TRICARE fee increases, The American Legion urged Congress to link any payment hikes to cost-of-living allowances (COLA) for military retirement pay. That is precisely what is included in the new NDAA. Some proponents wanted to link fee increases to those reflected in the National Health Care Index, which are typically higher percentages than COLA.
Creation of a Unified Military Command is also established by the defense bill, a concept endorsed by the Legion's membership in a May 2010 resolution that urged Congress "to direct re-organization of the Military Health Care System into a Unified Military Medical Command preceded by a study, if necessary, to determine the operational gains and cost savings of this proposed command structure."
Part of the NDAA tackles the military's downsizing requirements in the wake of the Iraq War. Several incentives have been authorized for DoD use to reduce the number of America's men and women in arms: a 15-year retirement option (instead of the current minimum of 20), voluntary retirement or separation pay and early release from active duty for enlisted members.
"Some of these incentives were used in the 1990s to reduce DoD forces after the fall of the Soviet Union," Tetz said. "But the real question we should be asking is not whether these incentives are good or bad ideas, but whether it is a good idea to reduce our force levels at all."
The American Legion passed a resolution last October that strongly opposed further reductions to America's armed forces, calling such a move a threat to our national security.