NewsBytes June 10, 2022      

In this issue:
House Starts Mark Up of Defense Authorization Bill
Veterans Toxic Exposure
Legislators Criticize VA Home Loan Program
Senators Ask to Cut Red Tape for Volunteer Drivers
D-Day 78 Years Ago

House Starts Mark Up of Annual Defense Authorization Bill
The House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee marked up and approved its portion of the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-H.R. 7900).  Key provisions in the subcommittee markup include:
No new TRICARE fee increases;
Prohibiting reductions in military medical staff until there is an impact assessment provided to Congress;
Providing for an annual active duty pay increase (4.6 percent) that keeps pace with civilian pay increases;
Requiring the Secretary of Defense to complete a pay study and adjust the pay of child development center employees; and
Numerous provisions to improve access to mental health care.

The FRA submitted a statement for the record in conjunction with the Subcommittee markup. The statement expresses opposition to increasing TRICARE fees, COLA cuts, and cuts to military medical billets. The Association urged the Subcommittee to include concurrent receipt and military divorce law (USFSPA) reform in the markup. FRA expressed concern about Navy morale issues such as the rash of suicides on the USS George Washington, the need for an annual pay increase that keeps pace with inflation, more oversight of military privatized housing, and increased funding for childcare at military installations. The Association also asked the Subcommittee to allow survivors to retain the full month’s retired pay for the month in which the retiree dies, and to repeal the requirement for retirees to wait 180 days before becoming a civilian Defense Department employee. 

The bill (H.R.7900) is scheduled to be marked up in the full committee (HASC) on June 22. The Senate Armed Services (SASC) Personnel Subcommittee is scheduled to markup its portion of the FY2023 NDAA on June 14 and the SASC markup will occur on June 15-16.  Once approved by the full committees the bills will go to the floor of their respective chamber to consider floor amendments and be approved. After both chambers approve their version of the NDAA a conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences between the two bills.  Once the differences are resolved the final bill will be submitted to the House and Senate for approval. If approved by both chambers the bill will be sent to the President to be signed into law or be vetoed. 

Veterans Toxic Exposure
As NewsBytes goes to press, the Senate is expected to approve the veteran’s toxic exposure bill (H.R.3967) after the Senate voted to limit debate on the legislation (86-12). As noted in last week’s NewsBytes The bill will be amended in the Senate to authorize the setup 31 major medical clinics across America and hire thousands more claims processors and health care staff. 

The bill would establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to the smoke from burn pits, used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq to dispose of various types of waste, many of them toxic. Further, the bill also provides for new benefits for veterans who faced radiation exposure during deployments throughout the Cold War, adds hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy to the list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam War, expands the timeline for Gulf War medical claims and requires new medical exams for all veterans with toxic exposure claims. Veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Guam during the Vietnam War era would be covered for the first time under the same Agent Orange presumptive policies as those who served in Vietnam itself.

VA staff would be granted “the authority to determine that a veteran participated in a toxic exposure risk activity when an exposure tracking record system does not contain the appropriate data,” a stark distinction from the science-only system in use at VA currently. Veteran advocates have complained that in many cases, veterans with serious illnesses obviously connected to their service have been turned away by the VA because irrefutable data showing chemical exposure during their service does not exist. The measure that passed the House is estimated to cost more than $200 billion over 10 years and would potentially affect as many as one in five veterans living today.

Since the bill was amended in the Senate so it must go back to the House to approve the Senate amendment before being sent to the President to be signed into law. 

Legislators Criticize VA Home Loan Program
Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (Pa,) and Derek Kilmer (Wash.) led a bipartisan letter signed by more than 60 of their colleagues to the  Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough, urging the VA to improve its mortgage loan process to ensure veterans can effectively compete in the current housing market.    

Under the VA home loan program, the loans are provided by private lenders, but the VA guarantees a portion of the loan against the possibility of default. That allows borrowers to get more favorable terms than they might otherwise be able to, including no down payments, lower interest rates and limited closing costs. But the program also requires a VA appraisal of the home and other qualifying steps that can lengthen the time it takes to close a sale while frustrating both buyers and sellers. The VA appraisals can take an average of 14.8 business days to complete, compared to a couple days for a non-VA loan. The rise in cash and conventional loans with waived contingencies has decreased veterans’ ability to compete in the current housing market. VA borrowers are less successful than borrowers using conventional loan products, with 11 percent of VA borrowers changing loan products during their housing search, compared to only 1 percent of conventional borrowers who change financing methods. 

A recent National Realtors survey shows 94 percent of sellers said they were most likely to accept an offer with conventional financing, compared to only one percent who said they were most likely to accept an offer with a VA loan.

In the letter the lawmakers pressed McDonough for answers on how the VA can improve the appraisal process and public perception of the home loan program, as well as what the department thinks Congress can do to enhance the program.

Senators Ask VA to Cut Red Tape for Volunteer Drivers
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (Mont.) and Committee members Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) have dispatched a letter to Secretary Denis McDonough urging the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to cut red tape on its volunteer driver certification process, also known as the Volunteer Transportation Network (VTN), to assist veterans traveling to and from health care appointments.

In January 2021, the Senate passed the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act (Public Law 116-315), which required the VA to establish a national policy regarding medical exams required to certify volunteer drivers for the VTN no later than 90 days following its passage. As of June 1, 2022, the VA has not completed this requirement.

In the letter, the senators highlighted various instances where red tape prevents VTN drivers from helping veterans access the care they need and earned. This includes drivers failing to receive a response from the VA regarding necessary paperwork to participate in the program, and prolonged wait times for physical exams required to become certified as a volunteer driver. 

D-Day 78 Years Ago
This week (June 6) marks the 78th anniversary of the World War II invasion of Normandy, France, by Allied troops. Commonly referred to as D-Day, it was the largest naval invasion in history and eventually led to the end of the war in Europe.  FRA salutes all WWII veterans, particularly those who fought on June 6, 1944.

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