NewsBytes June 17, 2022      

In this issue:
Senate Approves Veterans Toxic Exposure Bill
NDAA Moves Forward in the Senate
Key Spending Bills Advance
Eligibility Reassessments Suspended for Care Giver Program
Happy Birthday Navy Hospital Corps!
FRA NHQ Closed Monday

Senate Amends and Approves Veterans Toxic Exposure Bill
The Senate amended and approved the veteran’s toxic exposure bill (H.R.3967) that 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 $281 billion over 10 years and would potentially affect as many as one in five veterans living today.

The Senate amendment would authorize the setup of 31 major medical clinics across America and hire thousands more claims processors and health care staff. Since the bill was amended in the Senate, it must now go back to the House for approval of the Senate amendment before being sent to the president to be signed into law.
Members can use the FRA Action Center to urge their Representative to approve the Senate amendment and send the bill onto the President to be signed into law online.

NDAA Moves forward in the Senate
As NewsBytes goes to press, the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee marked up its portion of the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and sent it to the SASC full committee to markup in a closed session. Details are not available until the committee work is complete. Committee staff has informed the FRA Legislative Team that the bill includes:
• No new TRICARE fee increases;
• Prohibiting reductions in military medical staff until there is an impact assessment provided to Congress;
• Provisions to improve access to mental health counseling;
• No concurrent receipt reform;
• An active-duty 4.6 percent pay increase; and
• $50 million in impact aid to schools with military families.

The House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee marked up its version of the FY2023 NDAA (H.R.7900) last week (See the June 10 NewsBytes for details) and is scheduled to be marked up in the full committee (HASC) on June 22. 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. 

Key Spending Bills Move Forward
Six of the 12 House appropriations subcommittees marked up and passed their portion of the federal annual budget. These subcommittees include Defense, and Military Construction-VA. House Democrats chose to move ahead with spending bills despite the lack of a bicameral, bipartisan agreement on top-line spending. These still unnumbered bills will move to the House Appropriations Committee to be approved and sent to the House floor for further consideration. They plan to hold floor votes in July. The FRA monitors the appropriation process to ensure adequate funding for various programs that impact members, with special focus to ensure adequate funding and staffing for Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) health care.
The Defense subcommittee rejected efforts to increase defense spending three to five percent above the current rate of inflation.  Also, the size and funding of the annual active duty pay increase is expected to be hotly debated. 

The current fiscal year appropriations package (FY2022) was signed into law March 15, 2022. FY2022 started on Oct. 1, 2021. This nearly 6-month delay resulted in flat-line funding for many current government programs. Too frequently Congress fails to pass spending bills on time. The federal government has partially closed 18 times since 1976 because one or more appropriations bills were not signed into law on time. In 2018-19, the shutdown lasted 35 days.

When the spending bills do not pass Congress has to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open. CRs are an awful way to fund the federal government because they generally continue funding at prior year levels, with no regard to the value of the individual programs. They continue to fund those programs that have outlived their usefulness or badly need reform, and they fail to expand successful programs that need a boost.
Members can use the FRA Action Center encourage their legislators to get their work done on time. 

VA Suspends Eligibility Reassessments for Care Giver Program
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has suspended all ongoing eligibility reassessments of veterans enrolled in its family caregiver program while it reviews the program’s qualification requirements. This announcement comes after the VA announced it would suspend dismissals from the caregiver program after a VA review found that most post-9/11 veteran families participating in the program would be removed following a 2018 change to eligibility criteria. Although the dismissals were stopped, reassessments and subsequent dismissal notifications continued, leading to confusion among veterans and caregivers regarding their status and options to appeal.

The caregiver program provides health care and benefits, including a stipend, to individuals who devote their time providing oversight of veterans who need assistance and supervision and cannot live independently. The stipends vary based on location, but range from roughly $1,800 to $3,000 a month, depending on the level of care required. Under the suspension, the VA also will not reduce stipends based on a recent reassessment, and as previously announced, is not discharging anyone from the program until the review is complete.

The FRA raised alarm over the VA family caregiver program’s expansion was not being properly implemented in its testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans affairs Committees in March 2022.  Despite objections from the FRA and other VSO organizations, the VA’s revised regulation tightened the eligibility criteria substantially beyond what is required by law. As the VA’s regulation substantially changes the program’s eligibility criteria, the process to determine a veteran’s “need” for assistance, and the entire methodology and basis for the stipend paid to the caregiver. The FRA is concerned that many caregivers will be unable to obtain assistance, which was the intent of the 2018 Act.  

Happy Birthday Navy Hospital Corps!
On June 17, 1898, the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps was officially established as a unit in the Medical Department of the Navy. Today, members of the Navy Hospital Corps serve as medical professionals on submarines, vessels and out in the field alongside sailors and marines.

FRA NHQ Closed Monday
Due to the Federal Holiday, the FRA National Headquarters will be closed Monday, June 20, 2022.

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