Newsbytes May 17, 2024

In this issue:
VA Improperly Awarded Incentives to Senior Executives
Senators Push VA to Renegotiate EHRM Contract for Veterans
Coast Guard Authorization Moves Forward
SVAC Reviews VA Budget
Armed Forces Day This Saturday
FRA at VSO/MSO Round Table led by Chairman Hakeem Jeffries

IG Report: VA Improperly Awarded Incentives to Senior Executives
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report – with criminal referrals – stating that in 2023, the VA improperly awarded $10.8 million in bonuses intended for high-demand healthcare and benefits support staff vital to VA operations following the implementation of the PACT Act (Public Law 117-168). Instead, these bonuses went to senior executives at the VA central office. In September 2023, the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees sent a joint letter to Secretary McDonough on this issue, which can be found here.

Senators Push VA to Renegotiate EHRM Contract for Veterans and Taxpayers
Key members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, including SVAC Chairman Jon Tester (MT), dispatched a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) pushing for stronger accountability provisions in its ongoing contract negotiations with Oracle Health on the Electronic Health Record Modernization (EHRM) program. The current contract expired on May 16, 2024.

The VA’s previous contract from May 2018 had very few mechanisms to hold Oracle Health accountable for its numerous performance failures, including system crashes, poorly tested software solutions that led to patient safety incidents, and insufficient training programs. The Senators highlighted years of VA oversight of the contractor “that lacked sufficient accountability,” compounding these systemic problems.

Following sustained efforts from the HVAC and SVAC to deliver veterans and VA medical staff a safer and better-functioning EHR, VA’s renegotiated contract from May 2023 included stronger accountability provisions. This included setting higher standards for system reliability and contractor responsiveness and larger penalties when Oracle Health does not meet the expected standards. The contract also changed from a five-year term to five one-year terms, giving the VA the opportunity to review Oracle Health’s progress every 12 months and renegotiate terms as appropriate to ensure they are delivering for veterans, VA employees, and taxpayers.

Last year, the EHR RESET Act aimed to deliver a complete overhaul of the EHRM program. This legislation includes provisions to restructure, enhance, and strengthen the entire EHRM program, while also mandating aggressive reporting to Congress to increase oversight, accountability, and transparency following a series of challenges with the system and program. Bipartisan companion EHR RESET Act legislation has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Read the Senators’ full letter HERE.

Coast Guard Authorization Moves Forward
Legislation that provides for a two-year authorization of the Coast Guard (H.R. 7659) was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and passed the House. Funding for the Coast Guard would include $11.3 billion in FY 2025 and $11.9 billion in FY 2026 for operations and maintenance.

The bill is sponsored by Committee Chairman Sam Graves (MO), Committee Ranking Member Rick Larsen (WA), Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Webster (FL), and Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Ranking Member Salud Carbajal (CA). The bill provides for a 4.5% annual pay increase that keeps pace with civilian pay increases (the Employment Cost Index). Coast Guard reservists would receive the same amount of parental leave as their counterparts in the other military branches. The bill provides the resources needed to complete these missions, support infrastructure and safety upgrades, and improve the quality of life for Coast Guard members. In addition to these important investments, this bill also reaffirms a bipartisan commitment to holding the Coast Guard accountable for reforms needed to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment from its ranks. The bill will now go to the Senate for further consideration.

SVAC Reviews VA Budget
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing to review the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget request for FY 2025 and advanced funding for FY 2026. The hearing focused on how the VA’s budget aims to serve veterans and their families through improved benefits, healthcare, and other services. It was noted at the hearing that the overall budget increased nearly 10 percent from last year, primarily due to the 21 percent increase for PACT Act funding, which includes 1.3 million toxic exposure disability claims. The budget also includes a spike in spending ($2.8 billion) for VA infrastructure. The average VA hospital is 60 years old compared to private sector hospitals, which on average are 13 years old. VA Secretary McDonough testified, noting that the increases are needed due to healthcare inflation and increased utilization.

Armed Forces Day This Saturday
The inception of Armed Forces Day dates back to 1949. Every year, the third Saturday of May is selected to honor Americans who are currently serving in all branches of the U.S. military. It was intended to replace the separate Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard days, but today, the separate holidays are still observed independently. On May 20, 1950, the holiday was first observed. Armed Forces Day remains a day focused on expanding public knowledge and understanding of the role of the military and as a day of honor for all those serving.

FRA at VSO/MSO Round Table led by Chairman Hakeem Jeffries
NED Phillip Reid represented FRA on May 14th at the quarterly meeting of members of Congress regarding programs and laws that impact veterans. The roundtable provides face-to-face communication between members of Congress and VSO/MSO representatives.

This roundtable focused on two topics:

1. VA Loan Guaranty Program
2. Educational Programs (GI Bill and Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E))

The roundtable was chaired by Leader Hakeem Jeffries and attended by multiple members of Congress.

The VA Loan Guaranty Program was touted by Representative Takano (CA-39) as the vehicle that makes it more possible for veterans to achieve “the American dream of homeownership.” Multiple VSO/MSO representatives, however, pointed out that due to various VA rules, there are veterans who don’t qualify for the VA Loan Guaranty Program. This includes some individuals who served as reservists or in the National Guard.

H.R. 6225 (Expanding Home Loans for Guard and Reservist Act) has been introduced in the House of Representatives to expand the eligibility to certain individuals who are currently not eligible for the VA Loan Guaranty Program.

Representative Clyburn (SC-06) spoke about Black veterans coming home after WWII who were denied VA Loans, as well as GI Bill benefits. Representative Clyburn said that there would be a hearing on June 12 on a House bill that he’s proposing to correct this misdeed.

It was requested that the current foreclosure moratorium on delinquent VA loans be extended. Attendees were informed that the Department of Veterans Affairs would be launching a new program – the Veterans Affairs Servicing Purchase (VASP) program.

VASP is a last-resort tool and is projected to help more than 40,000 veterans experiencing severe financial hardship keep their homes.

The topics raised by VSO/MSO representatives related to educational programs included:

- Providing relief to veterans who had been defrauded by “fake” schools (H.R. 1767).
- Increasing book stipends.
- Increasing the MHA (GI Bill Monthly Housing Allowance) during the summer to be the same amount paid during semesters.
- Gold Star Family Education Parity Act (H.R. 7549)

Beyond the scheduled topics, there was much discussion of the “Elizabeth Dole Home and Community-Based Services for Veterans and Caregivers 2023” (H.R. 548), which impacts the services veterans can seek if their local VA is not able to provide services.

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