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ADVOCATE NEWSLETTER
 

Volume 27 • Number 1
January-February 2013
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Number of Veterans in Congress Continues to Drop Despite New Iraq/Afghanistan Members

According to the Army Times, nine veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will take the oath of office and become members of Congress this year. However, the overall number of veterans in Congress continues to decline in a trend that has been going on for at least 30 years.

Last year 107 veterans ran for Congressional office, 60 as Republicans and 47 as Democrats. As a result, there will be nine new veterans in the House of Representatives. However, the overall number of veterans serving in the House will drop from 92 during the last two years to between 83 and 86 (different sources are reporting different numbers). In the Senate, the number of veterans will drop from 26 to 20. Veterans who left the Senate at the end of 2012 include Akaka, Lugar, Brown, Bingaman, Webb, and Kohl. None of the incoming freshmen senators have military experience.

Large numbers of WWII veterans served in Congress from the late 1940's until the 1980's. In fact, in 1977-78 more than 400 of the 535 members of Congress were veterans.

It was in the 1980's when the number of veterans started declining by about 10 percent each election cycle (every two years). Because the number of personnel serving in Iraq/Afghanistan was, by comparison with WWII much smaller, it is unlikely that veterans will see an uptick in the percentage that serve in Congress.

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Report from the Hill

After months of delay the Senate finally managed to pass its version of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in early December of last year. This is something that should have happened before October 1.

The bill is crucial for military people because it authorizes most of the activities of the Department of Defense, including health care, commissaries and military pay. This year the Administration had proposed increases in TRICARE pharmacy fees and current law allows the Secretary of Defense almost unlimited discre- tion to raise pharmacy copays. There- fore, Congress had to either block the proposed increases or modify them if they didn’t want the DoD proposals to be put in place.

The Pentagon budget submission expressed intent to increase brand- name copays an additional $2 per year, generic copays by $1 a year, and non-formulary copays by $3-4 a year through FY2017. This became very important because, without going into too many details, the increased fees would allow DoD to reduce the amount of money it requested for its health care budget. And if Congress refused to go along with the DoD proposal, its rules would force it to approve higher spend- ing for DoD healthcare, which would have to be handled by higher taxes or cutting spending elsewhere and moving the money to the healthcare budget. Since Republicans in the House refuse to raise taxes, and since DoD didn’t want to cut any other programs in order to pay for higher healthcare costs, this became a major dilemma.

In June, the House took action to signif icantly reduce the copays and strictly limit the Secretary of Defense’s discretion to impose further increases in the following years.

Under the House version of the NDAA future annual increases would be capped at the percentage increase in military retired pay. That is, if there’s a 3% COLA for 2013, the retail brand- name copay increase for FY2014 couldn’t exceed 51 cents ($17 x .03). This cap is very important because, once established in law, Congress could choose to ignore any future, large Pentagon-proposed increases without being required to come up with any offsetting cuts.

To cap current and future copay hikes, the House decided to achieve the needed savings by establishing a 5-year pilot program under which beneficia- ries age 65 and older would be required o use TRICARE's mail-order system for ref ills on maintenance medications, at least temporarily. Beneficiaries could opt out of the mail-order refill system after one year, if they choose.

While the copays under the Committee plan are still larger than AMS would like, and while we were reluctant to embrace mandatory mail- order refills, we believed this was the least bad option that was available.

As the Senate dealt with its version of the NDAA in December, three Sena- tors (Reed of Rhode Island, McCaskill of Missouri and Rubio of Florida) intro- duced an amendment to tie TRICARE fee increases to the cost of living adjust- ments for TRICARE beneficiaries. This was essentially the same thing that was in the House version of the NDAA. Unfortunately, the amendment failed which means the Senate NDAA does not address the TRICARE pharmacy issue, which causes it to go along with the DoD proposal.

This important issue must be worked out in conference committee and sent back to each body for final passage before it goes to the Presi- dent for his signature. AMS strongly supports the House language regarding TRICARE pharmacy increases and we will report on the results in our next issue.

The White House had also requested TRICARE healthcare fee increases in its budget proposal, which the Senate did remove from its final bill. Since the fees were also excluded from the House bill there will be no TRICARE fee increases in 2013, but it's almost guaranteed that DoD will come back again and request them in next year's budget.

The White House threatened to veto the Defense bill over three items it disagreed with: 1) the removal of the TRICARE fee increases (not the phar- macy increase, but TRICARE health- care); 2) a provision limiting transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay Cuba to prisons in the U.S.; and limitation on the amount of cuts that DoD will be allowed to make in the Air National Guard and funding for upgrades to the M-1 Abrams tank. However, very few people take the veto threat seriously.

In a speech on the floor of the Senate during consideration of the NDAA, Senator John McCain, perhaps the best known military retiree in Congress, said Congress should increase TRICARE fees and he urged his colleagues to support increase next year. AMS is stunned that McCain would be one of the chief crusaders for TRICARE fee increases and we urge residents of Arizona to contact McCain and let him know your thoughts about his support for increasing TRICARE fees.

One of the good things to happen in the NDAA was a 1.7% pay raise for active duty personnel. But with growing talk about the military being overpaid, we expect a battle over a pay raise next year.

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President's Column - Daniel J. O'Connell

Let me begin by wishing you a Happy New Year. It's hard to believe it's already 2013. It seems like it wasn't that long ago that there was real concern about what would happen when 2000 rolled around!

One of the issues we always deal with is the length of time between when we write the Advocate and when you receive it. Obviously it takes time to print and mail it so we try to keep our information as up to date as we can, but it is often the case that events take place after production is in process and we're not able to be as current as we would like.

We have delayed this issue of the Advocate a little bit because the Senate has been working on passing its version of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act and we wanted to let you know what happened with it. The NDAA is one of two bills that must pass each year for the activities of the Department of Defense. The other is the National Defense Appropriations Act.

The Authorization Act authorizes DoD to do things or instructs it not to do things, while the Appropriations Act funds the activities that the Authorization Act allows. It is the Authorization Act that Congress has used to block the Pentagon from raising TRICARE fees for most of the past seven years and it is what will determine TRICARE pharmacy fees this year.

The House passed its version of the 2013 Authorization Act months ago while the Senate took until December to pass their version. Our "From the Hill" column fills you in on the important details of the Senate's version of the NDAA. However, after the Senate passed its version a conference committee with the House was held to work out the differences between the two bills. Once they complete that the final bill is sent to the President for his signature and then it becomes law.

In areas where there are differences between the two bills it is impossible to know what will be in the final version until the conference committee finishes with it. So keep that in mind when you read what the Senate did. That is not the last word.

Regarding the Appropriations Act, Congress was not able to pass any appropriations bills to fund the Federal government before the beginning of the 2013 fiscal year on October 1 of last year. Because of that they passed what is called a "continuing resolution" that funds the federal government, including the Department of Defense, through the end of March this year. That means one of their first items of business this year will be to pass a funding bill for the remainder of the fiscal year. What a way to do business!

Finally, whatever happens, you need to be aware that we are in for a major battle this year. There is major pressure growing to cut back on military benefits, including health care, COLA's, commissary benefits, and there is even talk about military pay being too high. Here are just a few of the headlines that have appeared in the press just before we went into production:

  • "Time to Rein in TRICARE"
  • "Escalating Military Pay Under Scrutiny"
  • "Are Servicemembers Over Compensated?"

We think this kind of talk is outrageous and we will fight to stop these threatened cuts to military benefits. But we can't do this alone. We need your continued help and support. This year could be the most disastrous we have faced in at least a decade if we don't win the battles that are coming our way.

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Thousands Soon to be Involuntarily Separated from the Army

According to an article in Defensenews.com, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said late last year that the Army must soon reduce its numbers by 80,000 personnel and as many as 16,000 of those could be by involuntary separation. The reductions are coming because of the ending of the American combat presence in Iraq and the projected withdrawal of the majority of combat troops now in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

However, he also said that if Congress could not reach an agreement on the budget and the so-called "sequestration" goes into effect, another 80,000 to 100,000 troops would have to be cut, bringing the total force down to 400,000 personnel. Although he didn't say how many additional troops would have to be involuntarily separated in that circumstance, it no doubt would be the vast majority of them.

The main focus of the involuntary separations will be staff sergeants in 58 military occupational specialties. Personnel with 15 years of service but less than 20 will be eligible for TERA -- Temporary Early Retirement Authority. Soldiers who retire under TERA have the same retirement benefits as 20 year retirees, except that their retirement pay is reduced accordingly.

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Air Force Fights With Congress About Troop and Aircraft Reductions

If the Air Force gets its way in the 2013 budget that was submitted to Congress as part of the Administration's 2013 Defense Department budget proposal, 200 aircraft and 5,100 airmen will be cut from the Air National Guard. In addition, the Air Force wants to cut 2,900 active duty airmen and 900 reservists from its ranks.

However, as the Senate was working on the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) during the waning days of 2012 it instructed the Air Force to stop moving forward with the plan. The House of Representatives passed similar language last summer.

Because of that, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a statement on behalf of the Administration during Senate consideration of the NDAA and threatened a veto of the bill. According to a statement issued by OMB,

"These provisions would force DOD to operate, sustain, and maintain aircraft that are in excess to national security requirements, as defined by the new defense strategy, and are not affordable in an austere budget environment."

The Administration's objection was one of a number in the OMB statement which included its objection to the Senate's removal of the TRICARE fee increases that DoD had asked for. Observers noted that the veto threat was not as strong as others that had been issued in the past. In fact, the Administration issued a veto threat last May when the bill was being considered on the floor of the House. Assuming the House and Senate send a final 2013 NDAA to the President for his signature, most people believe he will sign it in spite of the veto threat.

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Changes in Leadership on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee

While there was no change in which party controlled the Senate (Democrats) and the House (Republicans) as a result of the November elections, changes in leadership of the various committees in each body were made. This happened because some committee chairs retired, some took leadership of other commit- tees and some were "term limited" according to the rules each party operates under in the House and Senate.

The Armed Services Committees in the Senate and House are keeping their same leadership, as does the House Veterans Affairs Committee. However, there is a change in leadership of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who had led the committee for the past two years, will be taking over the chairman- ship of the Senate Budget Committee. Next in seniority for the majority on the Veterans Committee in the Senate is Bernie Sanders (I-Vt). Although Sanders is elected as an Independent, he caucuses with the Democratic majority and is treated as a Democrat for committee assignments and leader- ship responsibilities. According to his Senate website, Sanders has advocated for legislation and funding benefiting veterans, including expanded health care and education.

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Senate Passes Cost-Of-Living Increase For Veterans

egislation to increase veterans' compensation through a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) passed the Senate on their first day back in session after the November elections. The Veterans' Compensation Cost-of- Living Adjustment Act of 2012 will affect several important benefits, including veterans' disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. It is projected that over 3.5 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits in Fiscal Year 2012.

The House of Representatives version of the bill was passed unanimously by the House last July but the Senate bill had been delayed in September by one or more unknown Republican Senators for unspecified reasons. Due to Senate rules, a Senator may block legislation in a manner which keeps his or her identity secret.

According to the Washington Post, the Department of Veterans Affairs warned when the bill stalled in September that in order for VA to pay the December cost-of-living adjustment as scheduled on Jan. 1, Congress would have to pass the COLA by Nov. 13.

"Should Congress pass the COLA after that date, VA would have to make complex programming changes to the system that could not be accomplished in time to pay the COLA increase on January 1," the VA said in a statement.

The Senate was able to meet the deadline at the very last minute. "Everything is now on schedule," a VA spokesman said after the vote was taken.
The Veterans' COLA Act of 2012 will:

  • Give veterans and their families and extra $500 in benefits for the 2013 year;
  • Adjust cost-of-living rates for almost 4 million veterans and their families to guarantee that their benefits grow along with inflation;
  • Increase disability compensation for veterans and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children;
  • Supplement the previous Act with a 1.7 percent increase; and
  • Adjust to allow disabled veterans accepting clothing allotments to use the benefits of Veterans' COLA.

The COLA rate will match the annual increase provided to Social Security recipients and is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index. It is designed to offset inflation and other factors that lead to the rising cost of living.

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Senate Votes "No" on SBP-DIC

As the Senate was working on the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act late last year, there was a major disappointment when it voted to reject Sen. Bill Nelson's (D-FL) amendment to end the deduction of VA survivor benefits from military Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuities.

Nelson articulately spoke of the need for this fix, and more senators voted for it than voted against it. The problem is that the proposal would cost almost $7 billion dollars over 10 years. As a result there was a "budget point of order" against it for violating a Senate procedural rule that was adopted as part of the budget control act passed in 2011.

It takes 60 senators to override a budget point of order, and the 58-to-34 vote fell two votes short. Eight senators abstained or otherwise absented themselves from this crucial vote. So the 54,000 widows and widowers affected by this terrible inequity will have to wait at least another year -- again.

AMS strongly supports ending the SBP-DIC offset and we will once again work to pass legislation to fix this problem.

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House Passes Homeless Veterans Bill

One of the things the House of Representatives was able to accomplish during the lame duck session was passage of H.R. 6328, a bill that would direct the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to give unclaimed
clothing recovered at airport security checkpoints to groups that would distribute the items to homeless veterans. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.), who was defeated in her attempt to be re-elected to her seat in the House.

It is estimated there are about 75,000 homeless veterans on any one night in the U.S., and about 20,000 veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan have been homeless within the last five years, according to Bloomberg news.

A similar bill, authored by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and
sponsored by 38 members from both parties, would also require the TSA to give any money it recovers at airports to the USO to help fund its activities. That bill, H.R. 2179, was not considered by the full House.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate S.3640. "I thank Rep. Hochul for her leadership on this issue, and I urge my Senate colleagues to join me in supporting this bipartisan, common-sense measure to help our veterans and their families," Toomey said in a press statement. However, the Senate had not acted on the Toomey bill by the time we go to press.

AMS supports these efforts and if they did not become law in 2012, we will support any legislation like this that is introduced in 2013.

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Studies Seek to Learn More About PTSD

American soldiers who return traumatic brain injury. Many who from wars abroad in Iraq and have returned from warfare experience Afghanistan have a host of vivid flashbacks to horrific moments difficulties in front of them once they hang up their weapons and put their uniforms in the storage chest. But for many veterans, the horrors of war are haunting, and effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are utterly debilitating, and may cause them to age prematurely.

Researchers are seeing alarming patterns in young veterans' health, with many otherwise healthy young men developing early-onset diabetes, heart disease, and slow metabolism leading to obesity. The data shows that about 30 percent of veterans, studied by researchers from Boston University's School of Medicine, demonstrate these symptoms. Those with apparent PTSD even have signs of loss of grey matter in the brain, which should not happen until old age.

According to the Pentagon, the number of soldiers with PTSD or brain injury has increased exponentially in recent years. Since 2000, more than 240,000 soldiers have reported
in combat -- the sound of gunfire, explosions, and carnage.

In a study sponsored by Draper Laboratory, a consortium of PTSD experts looked at gene data and psychophysiology to evaluate the disorder, as well as using MRIs to map out images of the brain. A sample of 2,953 American civilians and 345 military veterans was collected. In many cases, MRI images of veterans aged 20-30 showed deteriorated brain matter likened to that of a 70-year-old. Ann Rasmusson, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, told USA Today that traumatic stress, when left untreated, can cause the brain to become fixated on those moments and go back to them too easily. As a response to the relentless stress, the body simply ages faster, the researchers hypothesize.

More than eight percent of the population will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives, according to Boston University's School ofMedicine. In addition to military fighters, civilians who have been exposed to traumatic events -- such as car accidents -- are prone to suffer from the condition. When left untreated, PTSD can lead to panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, weight gain, and heart disease.

According to Draper Laboratory, more than half of those with the disorder are not properly diagnosed. The researchers hoped to find concrete chemical evidence to better diagnose and treat the disorder. "Although some biological characteristics that point to a PTSD diagnosis have already been identified, more comprehensive study is critical to examine the integrated roles of multiple potential biological factors of the condition," Dr Roger Pitman, the director of the PTSD Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. "This will help clinicians develop personalized treatment plans to improve outcomes, rather than relying on one-size-fits-all approaches."

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VA Leadership Needs to Step Up and Fix Spending Problems to Better Serve Veterans

Despite repeated bipartisan requests made by the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HVAC) regarding conference spending, foreign travel, and other information pertaining to VA healthcare and operations, senior VA officials admitted late last year that requests made by Congress are delayed internally, but that even when information is provided, it is frequently wrong.

Stemming from an earlier investigation that found nearly $1 million of taxpayer dollars, monies taken from VA healthcare accounts, was wasted during two Veterans Administration HR Conferences in Orlando, Florida, in 2011, the HVAC hearing in late November focused on receiving answers to the 75 outstanding requests made to VA.

"Lengthy delays or not responding to requests at all has become the norm," stated Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "First we were told $20 million was spent in FY2011 on conferences; then we were told it was a little over $100 million; finally we were told that no accurate, reliable figure on conference expenditures exists. Because of these discrepancies, Ranking Member Filner and I asked for clarification of VA's total conference spending for that year and prior years, as well as a breakdown of all individual conferences, and still have yet to receive any information."

The hearing also focused on the subject of VA foreign travel. The Committee has made several requests since August of 2012 for all information regarding any foreign travel made by VA employees over the past three years. The Committee had not received an answer to basic questions. Pictures, posted on VA's official Facebook and Twitter pages however, of a trip through Italy were shown at the hearing to senior VA leadership.

"We are trying to determine if these photos of a Euro- pean field trip represent evidence of a boondoggle or not," Miller said. "At best, these are pictures of a privately funded vacation posted on a government website. At worst, this was a taxpayer financed trip with no known legitimate purpose. We will get to the bottom of this, but without the Administration providing timely and accurate information, it risks perception becoming reality in the eyes of this Committee and veterans."

In an effort to staunch the excess spending, the House passed a bill last year, which VA opposed, to increase accountability and oversight of VA conference spending. H.R. 2302 ensures that all VA conferences costing more than $20,000 be reported to Congress. The bill became law earlier this year as part of the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.

"We clearly have a problem here and I intend to get to the bottom of it, both with respect to conference spending and VA's relationship with this oversight Committee," said Miller.

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