Concern over VA downgrading

The Economic Division met with Avue Technologies and five members of the American Federation of Government Employees on Nov. 14 to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) widespread downgrading of positions directly related to delivering healthcare to veterans.

Since 2009, according to the union representatives, about 14,000 employees in occupations dominated by veterans have been affected by VA’s Human Resources and Administration program, under the direction of then-Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepulveda. The occupations are at the low end of the general schedule pay system-affecting employees whose average wages are $41,610 per year – a full $30,747 below the VA average wage.

Veterans, including service-connected disabled veterans, make up a large share of the employees in these targeted positions. Overall, veterans comprise 31.4 percent of the VA health-care workforce, 8.6 percent of these veterans have service-connected disabilities. In contrast, the percentage of veterans in positions facing the most downgrades is much higher. For example:

• Patient support assistants: 42 percent are veterans, 18 percent are service-connected disabled veterans.

• Police officers: 87 percent are veterans, 22 percent are service-connected disabled veterans.

• Biomed technicians: 79.5 percent are veterans, 21 percent are service-connected disabled veterans.

• Claims assistants: 56.8 percent are veterans, 17.8 percent are service-connected disabled veterans

VA has refused to provide complete data on the number of positions being targeted, and has refused to reveal its plans for implementing downgrades of these positions and other positions in other parts of the country. VA has also refused, according to union reps, to address the impact of the downgrades on veterans employment, or the impact on its ability to recruit and retain a strong administrative workforce.

The American Legion agrees with the statement that with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars winding down, massive numbers of veterans are returning home and face great difficulty finding employment. These downgrades undermine the White House commitment to increase federal sector job opportunities (Executive Order 13518), congressional efforts to bring more veterans into the federal workforce (VOW to Hire Heroes Act, Public Law 112-56) and Secretary Shinseki’s pledge to increase the percentage of veterans in his workforce.

The National Economic Commission is responsible for ensuring that America’s veterans have the opportunity to provide, with honor and dignity, the economic necessities of life for themselves, their families and communities. It is our understanding that VISN 17 "Heart of Texas Health Care Network" that has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the country has taken the lead in the reclassification of GS positions. The American Legion will investigate these concerns by contacting both VA and OPM. In the short term, VA should not downgrade another position until this downgrading program is fully investigated.

In other news:

Congress returns, approves COLA increase: After the break for elections, Congress returned last week. Among the action taken, the Senate passed by unanimous consent a bill – H.R. 4114 – to provide a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 1.7 percent for veterans on Nov. 13. The bill has already been passed by the House of Representatives and now goes to the president for signature. 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 nearly 4 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits in this fiscal year.

In other news on Capitol Hill:

• Sequestration continues to loom. The Senate must direct its attention to avert sequestration, or defense spending faces a dramatic, automatic, across-the-board cut of $51 billion in fiscal year 2013, and $500 billion over 10 years. The American Legion has lobbied both legislative bodies that such a steep reduction would cause severe, if not irreparable, harm to our national security.

• The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity convened a hearing Nov. 15 to discuss the continuing employment difficulties facing veterans and the programs to help them find work in a difficult economy. Legion staff was on hand to hear from the departments responsible, including the Departments of Labor and VA. Overall, veteran unemployment is 6.3 percent, representing about 689,000 individuals. For Post-9/11 veterans, unemployment was above the national average at 10 percent, or about 209,000 Americans. A webcast of the hearing and written testimony is available here.

TRICARE Prime option going away: Defense officials are expected to announce soon that military retirees and their dependents living more than 40 miles from a military treatment facility or base closure site will lose access to TRICARE Prime, the military’s managed care option. These beneficiaries – about 171,000 retirees and dependents – would be expected to shift to TRICARE Standard, their fee-for-service insurance option, which would mean an increase in out-of-pocket costs for beneficiaries who are frequent users of health services.

The change will tentatively occur April 1 in the West Region, which would coincide with UnitedHealth Military and Veterans Services taking over the region’s support contract from TriWest Healthcare Alliance after 16 years. The North and South TRICARE regions are expected to close down Prime service areas beyond 40-mile catchment areas of bases or base closure sites by Oct. 1, 2013, the date when current Prime enrollment periods expire for most beneficiaries.

Event focuses on veteran jobs: The American Legion hosted the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA) "Veterans Initiative" event in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and an Air Force veteran, served as the keynote speaker and advocated for streamlined licensing and credentialing of qualified, job-seeking servicemembers and veterans. The event also discussed retention efforts as current data indicates that the employment retention rate among veterans is lower than average. This is due in part, say observers, to the differences in military and civilian mindsets – many veterans becoming discouraged by what they regard as lack of direction in corporate settings.

Credentialing push: The American Legion has been invited to participate in the National Conference of State Legislatures conference in December. The Economic Division will continue its push for support for credentialing both on the national, state and local levels of government.

Hiring Our Heroes growing: In celebration of its one-year anniversary, Hiring Our Heroes announced an expansion from 100 to 400 hiring fairs in its second year, the establishment of a stand-alone program for military spouses, and a sustained campaign to enlist commitments from the business community to hire 500,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2014. In its first 18 months, Hiring Our Heroes hosted 287 fairs in 49 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. More than 10,400 veterans and military spouses have obtained jobs. The American Legion has been an active participant in this campaign by hosting more than 140 hiring fairs and more being planned at Legion posts.


Some data on homeless veterans, courtesy of the National Center on Veteran Homelessness:

• 15.2 percent: homeless who are veterans. Veterans make up less than 9 percent of the population nationally.

• 21.3 percent: homeless veterans who are over the age of 60, compared to 9.4 percent of homeless non-veterans.

• 5.8: The average number of years veterans remain homeless. For non-veterans, the average is 3.92 years.

• 67,495: Homeless veterans counted nationwide in 2011. New numbers regarding homeless veterans (from VA and HUD) will be released within the next 30 days.

AIRMAN MISSING IN ACTION FROM VIETNAM WAR IDENTIFIED: On Oct. 16, the remains of two U.S. servicemen, missing in action from the Vietnam War, were identified. Air Force Col. Wendell Keller, 34, of Fargo, N.D., and Capt. Virgil K. Meroney III, 25, of Fayetteville, Ark., were to be buried as a group, in a single casket representing the crew, on Oct. 19 in Arlington National Cemetery. Meroney was interred individually on June 9, in his hometown. On March 1, 1969, Keller and Meroney were the crew of an F-4D Phantom II aircraft that crashed while carrying out a nighttime strike mission in Khammouan Province, Laos.

SWS VISITS: A System Worth Savings site visit was held Nov. 14-15 at the VA Maine Healthcare System in Togus, Maine. Additional SWS visits are planned for early December in Chicago and Indiana.