FRA NewsBytes - 07-11-2014

In this issue:
House Panel Probes VA Cover-up while VA Requests Monthly Meetings with Local VSOs
Retirement and Pay Commission Releases Interim Report
VA Conference Committee Stalls over Budget Impact
VA Opens Burn Pit Registry

House Panel Probes VA Cover-up while VA Requests Monthly Meetings with Local VSOs
The House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a hearing this week regarding the cover-up of excessive wait times at veterans’ hospitals. The hearing focused its attention on federal employees who stepped forward to expose the fraud, sometimes jeopardizing their careers to do so. The committee also heard testimony from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), who provided appalling examples of patient neglect after they were hospitalized—indicating that substandard care is more than a waiting-list problem. As reported in the June 20, 2014 issue of NewsBytes, senior management at the VA has been accused of retaliating against whistleblowers and is being investigated by OSC.

In related news, Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson recently met with the FRA staff and representatives from 25 other Military and Veterans Service Organizations (MSOs and VSOs) to confirm his commitment to work together to address systemic problems in accessing VA health care. During the meeting, he updated the organizations’ representatives on the VA’s work with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) to restore veterans’ trust in the system and on VA’s progress in reaching out to get veterans into clinics and off of waiting lists. He told MSO and VSO representatives that he looks forward to working with them to better serve veterans. He also has directed all VA Medical Center leadership to hold monthly meetings with VSOs and community partners.


Retirement and Pay Commission Releases Interim Report
On July 3, 2014, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) released an interim report. While the 358-page interim report does not make any recommendations for changes to benefits, it does document the commission's understanding of the overall current military compensation and benefit programs; relevant laws, regulations, and policies; associated appropriated federal funding; and historical background for the uniformed services' compensation and benefit programs.

The MCRMC stated that while compensation funding has increased substantially over the last two decades, the increase is mostly due to inflation (particularly medical inflation) and 13 years of war. The MCRMC also found that while compensation funding has increased, it has remained consistently around 30 percent of the DOD budget. The MCRMC did note that Reserve compensation deserves special attention for reform since the status has changed from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve that is mobilized and deployed frequently.

The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) established a nine-member commission to review military compensation and retirement programs and make recommendations for their modernization to the president and Congress in February 2015.

FRA has consistently expressed serious concerns about cost-driven efforts to “reform” pay and benefits, and contends that the current pay and benefit package is key to recruiting, retention and sustaining military readiness. The Association provided a written statement to the Commission expressing FRA concerns; that statement, dated December 20, 2013, is available on the FRA website. FRA DLP John Davis has met with MCRMC Commissioners and staff to provide an enlisted perspective on pay and benefit changes. FRA will continue to closely monitor the activities and deliberations of the commission. Shipmates can read the interim report at www.mcrmc.gov/index.php/reports.


VA Conference Committee Stalls over Budget Impact
The House and Senate conferees for H.R. 3230 are apparently deadlocked over how to eliminate the VA claims backlog without incurring significant unbudgeted costs. The conferees are reportedly working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to come up with less expensive options. Some legislators are reluctant to approve reforms due to the cost, estimated by the CBO to be $35 billion over the next three years. This cost is in addition to the $44 billion the VA now spends for medical care annually, and could ultimately increase costs by an additional $50 billion per year. FRA has stressed that no veteran who is eligible for health care services from the VA should be forced to wait too long or travel too far to get medical treatment and services earned through his or her service. The Association also supports enacting the VA budget on a two-year basis, and increased accountability of senior VA management.

FRA has been informed that provisions to provide in-state tuition benefits under the GI Bill to veterans who have not established state residency, and expanding GI Bill benefits to widows of service members who were killed in the line of duty, may still be included in the final bill. Legislators need to hear that the price of taking care of our veterans is part of the cost of defending the nation. Shipmates are urged to use Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to weigh in on these proposals (H.R. 3230, H.R. 4031, H.R. 813/S. 932 and H.R. 2189).


VA Opens Burn Pit Registry
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has initiated a new burn pit registry to report exposures to airborne hazards such as smoke from burn pits, oil-well fires, and other pollutants or exposures encountered during Desert Shield/Storm and Post-9/11 deployments. The registry is required to accurately document whether such exposure harmed or caused other illnesses or diseases. VA officials acknowledge that troops may suffer from illnesses related to environmental exposures, and has established a surveillance program for service members exposed to the known carcinogen hexavalent chromium from a water treatment facility near Basra in 2003. However, the VA also said there is not yet enough scientific evidence to prove that exposure to burn pits causes long-term health problems. Shipmates can log on to the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry at: https://veteran.mobilehealth.va.gov/AHBurnPitRegistry/index.html#page/home.