Updates in the news are provided for interested veterans, retirees, and active duty service members.
· VA announces plan for vacant buildings:
According to a June 21 article in The San Marcos Corridor News, following through on a key promise from less than a month ago, Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin has announced a plan to dispose of all vacant VA buildings in 24 months (either by demolishing or setting for reuse). Shulkin had raised the vacant building issue as a priority in his “State of the VA” address delivered at the White House on May 31.
· An unfair stigma for veterans:
According to an updated June 19 Newsday op-ed by Sol Wachtler, 62 percent of the 91,764 service members dismissed by the U.S. military for misconduct between 2011 and 2015 had been diagnosed two years before separation with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury or other conditions that could be associated with misconduct. And more than 13,200 of them received an “other than honorable” characterization of service, referred to as “bad paper,” making them ineligible for health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
· VA Vet Choice Program Update 51 — S.554:
The Senate on April 3 approved legislation that would extend a troubled program aimed at widening veterans’ access to private-sector health care, the first step in an overhaul of programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill passed by voice vote. It would allow the VA to continue operating its Choice program until its money runs out, expected to occur early in 2018. Without legislation, the program will expire on Aug. 7 with nearly $1 billion left over in its account. The VA said that money can provide stopgap care until a broader revamp is designed. The Choice program was put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center in which some veterans died. Intended to provide veterans more timely care, the Choice program allows veterans to go outside the VA network in cases where they had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a facility. Yet it often encountered long wait times of its own due to bureaucratic glitches and other problems. The Senate bill calls for fixes in the program to address some of those concerns, by helping speed up VA payments and promote greater sharing of medical records. It was sent to the House on April 5 who easily passed the measure.
“This bipartisan legislation cuts some of the red tape that slows down veterans’ access to care in their communities,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said. “I’m proud that Republicans and Democrats in Congress worked together to provide these solutions for veterans.”
· Burn pit toxic exposure update — registry link not good enough:
A new federal report said the data from an existing registry of troops’ downrange exposure to burn pits cannot be used to establish a link with health problems they are now experiencing, making it difficult to prove they are entitled to special benefits. Currently, veterans who have been exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq have to go through difficult and time-consuming processes to prove that their conditions are service-related. At stake are health care benefits, support for spouses and education benefits for children. Congress in 2013 mandated the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which was launched in 2014. It allows veterans to enter information about how much they were exposed to burn pits during their deployments and any subsequent health problems For those who served in ‘Nam, we have a good idea of the effects of the “burn pits”; we should not let those men and women who served and are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq fight this battle without our help.
· DoD tuition assistance:
I have been asked several times about tuition assistance so following is a brief description on tuition assistance. If you need additional information, you may want to see a service officer associated with a veteran service organization.
What is tuition assistance? Tuition assistance, informally called TA, is a federal benefit that covers the cost of tuition, up to particular limits, for active-duty service members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard, as well as some National Guardsmen and reservists. The funds are paid directly to schools by the service branches.
Are there limits or specific requirements? Generally, TA funds can be used to pursue a higher degree than what you have already earned, up to the master’s degree level. If you have a bachelor’s degree, you can use it to pursue a graduate degree — not an associate or second bachelor’s, though there are some exceptions. The Department of Defense caps tuition assistance at $250 per semester hour and $4,500 per fiscal year. The Coast Guard has an annual cap of $4,000 per year, the Navy and Army set limits at 16 semester hours per year. Keep in mind that some branches require you to create degree plan or take a branch-specific course before your TA benefits are approved. If you do not perform well in a class or need to withdraw for reasons other than personal illness or military duty, you will be required to pay back the funds used for that course. All branches set the threshold at a “C” grade for undergraduate courses and “B” for graduate school — anything lower requires reimbursement to the U.S. Treasury. GPA matters, too. For example, in the Navy, if sailors have a GPA of 2.0 or lower, they are required to see a Navy college education counselor. In the Air Force, future TA funds will not be approved if, after 15 semester hours at the undergraduate level, an airman has a GPA lower than 2.0 or 3.0 at the graduate level.
· VA end of life care update — No Vet Dies Alone Program:
A VA-wide team of hospice and palliative care employees has developed new resources, including a comprehensive tool kit, orientation guide, and other educational materials, for hospice volunteers who contribute their time to the “No Veteran Dies Alone” program. These resources are designed to train and support volunteers who provide presence, companionship and reassurance at the bedside when family and friends are unable to be with a veteran at end of life. In addition, this provides a set of national standards for volunteers to continuously raise our level of practice across the country.
· VA claim decision — what to do if you disagree:
When a veteran receives a VA decision letter, it states that if they disagree with the decision to let VA know. Included is VA Form 21-0958, Notice of Disagreement or NOD on which to list disagreement specifics. A NOD must be filed within one year of the decision letter. However, in many cases, it’s far more expedient to reopen the claim rather than send a NOD if you have evidence proving the decision was in error. Sending a NOD is the first step in the VA appeals process, which is a long one. Consult with your service officer to order to get additional input. If you file a Notice of Disagreement, it is beneficial to have either new or additional evidence to help support your argument.
· VA hospital, Oklahoma City:
Some have listened to the director of the VA hospital in Oklahoma City and to some of the changes that are proposed for the hospital, such as moving the cardiac facility to the first floor and increasing the parking facilities. If you go to the Oklahoma City hospital, you may want to consider letting the director know your opinion because like he stated, “If I don’t know of your concerns, there is nothing I can do to try and fix them.”
This is a program currently in Tulsa that helps homeless veterans find housing, employment and file for earned benefits. If you know of any veteran that is either currently homeless or about to become homeless, you may want to let them know about this program in Tulsa. For more information call 918-588-8414.
· Military 2018 pay raise — Leadership Recognition Act:
Frustrated over increasing issues with military salaries, a pair of Senators on June 14 introduced new legislation to ensure “equal compensation” among senior enlisted service members and limit the president’s ability to reduce troops’ pay raises. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), could affect President Trump’s plans for the 2018 military pay raise if lawmakers finalize the measure before the end of August. But it faces an uncertain future, given the busy budget schedule facing Congress in coming weeks and the restrictions it would place on the executive branch. Under the measure, the president would no longer be able to use “economic concerns” as a reason to decouple the military pay raise from the Employment Cost Index, which estimates private sector wage growth. Both Trump and President Barack Obama used that clause in recent years to offer smaller-than-expected pay raises for troops, redirecting the money to other readiness and modernization accounts. The bill sponsors criticized that as bad policy.
“Our men and women in uniform serve this country with honor,” Warren said in a statement. “They know they won’t get rich in the military, but they serve with skill and dedication and they are entitled to basic pay increases that will give them a chance to build some economic security.”