NewsBytes July 21, 2023

In this issue:
FRA Participates in Capitol Hill VSO Roundtable
NDAA Passes House
FRA Asks for Report on TRICARE Pharmacy Network
SVAC Advances VA Deputy Secretary to the Full Senate
More Federal Jobs for Military Spouses
SBP Open Season

FRA Participates in Capitol Hill VSO Roundtable
Director, Legislative Programs, John Davis participated in a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill with the House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.). The meeting focused on the recently enacted veteran’s toxic exposure law (PACT Act) Implementation. House Democrats want to ensure that these benefits generated by the PACT Act reach veterans in rural, underserved, and marginalized communities. 

At the meeting, concerns were expressed that veterans be made aware that they should apply for the PACT Act benefits within one year of the bill signing (Aug. 10, 2022) are potentially eligible for retroactive benefits back to that date. But veterans who enroll after the one-year anniversary will only receive payouts back to their date of filing. 

The law provides presumptive benefit status for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure in the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq; hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) for veterans who served in Vietnam; and radiation-related illnesses for veterans who served in several new locations in the 1960s and early 1970s. Veterans or their family members can get information about PACT Act benefits by visiting the VA’s website or by calling 1-800-MYVA411 (1-800-698-2411).

Other legislators in attendance included the Ranking Member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee Mark Takano (Calif.), and House Appropriations Military Construction-VA Subcommittee Ranking Member, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.)

NDAA Passes House
The House considered floor amendments and passed the FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-H.R.2670) with a mostly partisan roll call (219-210). The partisan roll call on final passage is a result of adopted amendments that restricts service member access to abortions, blocks transgender transition surgery, and limits diversity training. More than 1,400 amendments were filed. The final bill that passed includes the following:

No new TRICARE fee increases;
Repealing the constraint that retirees wait 180 days after discharge from service before becoming a civilian Defense employee;
Increasing active duty pay by 5.2 percent;
Requiring promotions be based on merit;
Deleting the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) from the calculation of service member eligibility for Basic Needs Allowance;
Providing a path back to service for more than 8,000 activeduty discharged for refusing to take COVID vaccine;
Eliminating the five percent cut in BAH cost for service members;
Expanding the in-home childcare pilot program for military families stationed in remote areas where suitable childcare is difficult to find;
Waiving fees on TRICARE Dental Program for the Reserve Component; and
Reducing Navy end strength by 7,000 and Marine Corps end strength by 4,700.

As NewsBytes goes to press, the Senate is considering floor amendments, including an amendment on concurrent receipt reform, for its version of the FY2024 NDAA (S.2226) and then passing the bill. A full report on floor action and passage will be provided in next week’s NewsBytes if the bill moves forward.  

Once both chambers of Congress have approved their versions of the NDAA, a conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences between the two bills. This bill will be voted on by both chambers and if approved, sent to the president to be signed into law.  

FRA Asks for Report on Impact of TRICARE Pharmacy Network
Earlier, the FRA and several other organizations dispatched a letter to key members of the House Armed Services Committee requesting that the FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) be amended to require the Defense Health Agency (DHA) to provide a report to Congress on the impact of recent TRICARE pharmacy network cuts on beneficiary access to care. DHA has reduced the minimum number of retail pharmacies required in the TRICARE network. As a result, the number of network pharmacies available to military families dropped by nearly 25 percent from more than 55,000 locations in 2022 to approximately 42,000 today. 

This network reduction creates access challenges for many rural residents, the elderly, and those with complex medical conditions. FRA supports an amendment that will require a detailed analysis of the network reduction’s impact on beneficiary access to retail pharmacy services. The military health system efficiencies must maintain beneficiary access to care. Our nation has an obligation to both the currently serving and retirees who for decades accepted the risks and sacrifices inherent to a career in uniform. Limiting access to benefits after they have been earned betrays the social contract that underpins the all-volunteer.  

SVAC Advances VA Deputy Secretary to the Full Senate
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved Tanya Bradsher, the nominee to be the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Deputy Secretary, and advanced her nomination to the full Senate for consideration. The VA Deputy Secretary is the VA’s second highest official who oversees the Department’s Electronic Health Record Modernization program implementation and is responsible for strengthening VA’s collaboration with the Department of Defense (DoD) on the VA-DoD Joint Executive Committee. The Deputy Secretary also serves as the Chief Operating Officer, tasked with running the day-to-day operations at VA. The position requires Senate approval. 

Bradsher is a combat veteran who served 20 years in the United States Army. She enlisted in 1993 and was commissioned in 1994 from the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. She currently serves as the VA Chief of Staff. She has also worked in Congress, at the White House, the Defense Health Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

More Federal Jobs for Military Spouses
President Joe Biden recently issues an executive order to increase the number of federal jobs for which spouses receive preferential hiring treatment, speed up new savings accounts for military family childcare expenses, and mandate a new government-wide plan for ways to help find work for spouses whose careers have been derailed by military moves and demands. The new moves are the latest attempt by federal officials to lower the rate of joblessness among military spouses, estimated to be more than 20 percent in Defense Department surveys and polls by outside advocacy groups. While veterans have seen their employment rates outperform the general public, military spouses lag severely behind. 

Approximately 16,000 military spouses are currently in the federal workforce. While the new actions may only affect a few thousand more, Biden and officials from Joining Forces — the White House initiative focused on military families and veteran transition issues — said they hope the moves will create a model for corporate America to emulate to better aid those job seekers. Other provisions in the wide-ranging order include recommendations for expanding training programs for military spouses, increasing paid leave for spouses dealing with change-of-station moves, and improving legal assistance for military families facing unfair employment practices. But those offerings are not mandatory.

A copy of the executive order is available online .

SBP Open Season
As first reported in the 12/9/22 NewsBytes, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2023 includes a Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) Open Season. The SBP Open Season began on Dec. 23, 2022 and ends on Jan. 1, 2024.

There are two distinct kinds of Open Season requests: Enrollment and Discontinuance. Each has its own requirements for eligibility, along with separate processes, provisions, paperwork, and payment options (for Enrollments). Enrollments Enrolling in SBP during Open Season is a four-step process that includes: 1.) Letter of Intent; 2.) Estimate Computation and Letter from DFAS; 3.) Enrollment confirmed and payment by member; 4.) Ongoing SBP premium deductions from retired pay. Members enrolling during Open Season are also required to choose from one of three payment options for the one-time buy-in premium to satisfy retroactive SBP premiums owed plus any applicable installment interest/charges. 

Requests to Discontinue SBP during Open Season require a different form, along with concurrence from your beneficiaries who would no longer be covered. You can go online and find up-to-date information, forms, and FAQs. 

NewsBytes is FRA's weekly legislative update. If you received this through a forward and would like to subscribe, please e-mail us  and include your name and contact information in the body of e-mail. If you are a member of FRA or LA FRA, please include your member number.


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