NewsBytes - 11-22-2013

Senate Pushes Passage of Defense Authorization Bill into December

Senate debate on the annual defense authorization bill (S. 1197) has been extended until mid-December because the Senate members could not come to agreement on which amendments to vote, out of the approximately 350 Senate floor amendments that have been filed. The inability to have a final vote on the legislation by Thanksgiving recess will make it much more difficult to secure passage of a final conference report before Congress leaves for the year.

The House approved its version of the defense authorization bill (H.R. 1960) in June. One of the major differences between the two bills is that the House version provides a 1.8 percent active duty/Reserve pay increase and the current Senate bill provides for only a 1 percent increase. FRA strongly supports a pay increase that at least keeps pace with the 1.8-percent civilian pay increase and would support a Senate floor amendment to increase the pay increase to 1.8 percent. FRA supports other key floor amendments that include:

  • Expanding concurrent receipt for immediate payment of full military retired pay and veteran’s disability compensation for all disabled retirees (sponsored by Senator Harry Reid-Nev.);
  • Providing a one-time offer for TRICARE Prime beneficiaries to keep their current coverage even though they live outside the reduced Prime Service Area (PSA) 40 mile radius of a Military Treatment Facility (MTF) or BRAC site (sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar-Minn.);
  • Extending early retirement credit for reservists back to 9/11/2001 (sponsored by Senator Saxby Chambliss).
  • Eliminating the Survivor Benefit Program (SBP) Dependent Indemnity Compensation (DIC) offset for military widows (sponsored by Senator Bill Nelson-Fla.).

Once the Senate completes work on the defense authorization bill (S. 1197), a conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences between the two bills. That final bill will then be voted on by the two chambers and then sent to the President to sign into law. Shipmates are strongly urged to use the FRA Action Center to ask their Senators to support these important amendments at: http://www.capwiz.com/fra/issues/alert/?alertid=63002816

FRA Participates in VSO/MSO Roundtable

FRA's National Executive Director Tom Snee, Director of Legislative Programs John Davis and representatives from 21 other military and veterans' service organizations participated in a roundtable discussion hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). Pelosi expressed frustration with the impact of upcoming sequestration cuts, but also noted that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability claims backlog has been reduced by 30 percent since March 2013. Rep. Michael Michaud (Maine), ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Susan Davis (Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services, Military Personnel Subcommittee, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, also attended the meeting. Davis thanked Michaud for introducing FRA-supported legislation (H.R. 2953) that authorizes Medicare reimbursement for eligible veterans getting health care at the VA, and asked for support for “Putting Veterans Funding First” (H.R. 813), provides two-year funding for VA, and thanked legislators for voting for omnibus veterans legislation (H.R. 2189) that includes Agent Orange provisions. The discussion focused on legislation to provide advanced (two-year) funding for the entire VA budget, ongoing budget conference committee negotiations on a long-term budget deal, sequestration defense cuts, the need to make the “doc fix” permanent, and other issues. (These legislative proposals are listed on the FRA Action Center at www.fra.org.)

House Hearing on Re-sale System

The House Armed Services, Military Personnel Subcommittee held a hearing this week on the in-state commissary benefit. Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale, the department’s top financial adviser, and Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark F. Ramsay, director of force structure, resources and assessment for the Joint Staff, reportedly requested that all state-side bases be closed as part of upcoming sequestration cuts. Commissaries rely on taxpayer subsidies of $1.4 billion a year to operate 247 stores worldwide.

Military leaders have testified often this year that they cannot reduce weapon programs or shrink end strength fast enough to absorb the $52 billion a year in cuts demanded from sequestration for 2014. Instead, operations, maintenance and modernization funding is dramatically reduced to achieve unforgiving mandated cuts. The service chiefs believe that readiness and training will be impacted.

Thomas T. Gordy, president of the Armed Forces Marketing Council, testified by suggesting three proposals that would lower patron savings but preserve stateside stores. One would double the patron surcharge, from five percent to 10 percent of the cost of goods sold. A second would increase commissary prices worldwide by two to three percent, enough to cover agency costs for shipping goods to overseas stores. A third is an “enhanced commissary” model that would allow stores to sell wine, beer and health and beauty products at a profit, to offset the cost of store operations. Some exchange profits fund morale, welfare and recreational (MWR) facilities on bases.

FRA advocates that Military commissaries and exchanges are essential parts of the military benefit package and FRA’s online survey completed in February 2013 indicates that nearly 61 percent of retirees rated commissary/exchange privileges as “very important.” FRA is a member of the recently established Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits.

VA Issues Warning about Marketing Company

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has issued notice that a marketing company has acquired and is using two toll free numbers which are VERY SIMILAR to VBA toll free numbers. The marketer is trying to get callers to sign up to receive a Wal-Mart gift card, and is asking for PII, including credit card information. When asked if they are the VA, they reply vaguely, and explain that the VA is very busy and the call was directed to them. They don’t say they are the VA, but if asked if they can help with VA benefits, they say yes. In addition, they even offer to transfer the call to the VA, after the caller provides the credit card information to get the free Wal-Mart gift card.

This issue has been reported to the Office of the Inspector General and the Federal Trade Commission for review. The two numbers identified in this alert are:

1-800-872-1000, which is very close to VBA main number of 1-800-827-1000; and

1-888-442-4511, which is very close to the GI-Bill number of 1-888-442-4551.

The VA recommends that veterans who feel they have disclosed personal information to an unauthorized individual should immediately contact their credit card companies to advise them of the situation, review transactions, and request that a new card number be issued. Veterans can request a free credit report from credit reporting agencies. In addition, the VA requests that veterans contact the FTC at 1-877-382-4357 and file a complaint.

FRA NHQ Holiday Schedule

There will be no Newsbytes next week due to Congress being in recess for Thanksgiving Day Holiday. The next issue of Newsbytes will be December 6, 2013. The FRA NHQ will be closed Thursday and Friday in observance of the Thanksgiving Day Holiday.