VFW Action Corps Weekly, February 12, 2016

In This Issue:
1. House Hearing on Choice Billing
2. House Holds Hearing on VA Housing Programs
3. Busy Legislative Week for the House
4. President’s Budget Request
5. VA Reevaluates Blue Water Navy Definition
6. IOM Report on Gulf War Illness
7. Proposed Tricare Changes
1. House Hearing on Choice Billing: On Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to discuss VA’s proposal to consolidate its community care programs. Specifically, the committee heard testimony from the VFW, VA, the VA Inspector General, Government Accountability Office, and the American Legion regarding billing issues veterans and Choice providers have experienced when using the Choice Program. VFW Senior Legislative Associate Carlos Fuentes urged the committee and VA to fully integrate Choice program providers into the VA health care system to eliminate bureaucratic red tape and allow veterans to move seamlessly between VA medical facilities and community providers without experiencing long delays and being needlessly billed for their care. VA also introduced a phone number, 877-881-7618, for veterans to call if their credit has been adversely affected by VA billing issues. To view a video of the hearing, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfTvQTYc7uA.
2. House Holds Hearing on VA Housing Programs: On Wednesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing entitled “A Review of VA’s Loan Guaranty and Specially Adaptive Housing Grant Programs (SAH).”  The subcommittee acknowledged that the VA Home Loan Program is a popular benefit, having served over 22 million veterans since its inception in 1944, and a successful program with VA-backed loans enjoying a lower foreclosure and delinquency rate than the national average. Still, there are always ways to improve. Representatives from the Mortgage Bankers Association and the National Organization of Realtors both noted that the misperception exists in the mortgage industry that the VA loan program is difficult to navigate, and therefore, veterans are sometimes discouraged by lenders and realtors to initiate the process. Eliminating this misperception is key to ensuring more veterans use the program. The SAH program was also discussed, with an emphasis on ways to make it more veteran-centric by reducing bureaucratic hurdles. To watch a webcast of the hearing, click here: http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/a-review-of-va-s-loan-guaranty-and-specially-adaptive-housing-grant-programs-sah.
3. Busy Legislative Week for the House: On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a host of veteran related bills. These included: H.R. 3016, Veterans Employment, Education, and Healthcare Improvement Act; H.R. 3106, Construction Reform Act of 2016; H.R. 2360, Career-Ready Student Veterans Act of 2015; H.R. 677, American Heroes COLA Act of 2015; H.R. 3234, Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act; and H.R. 2915, Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act. Many of these measures had been amended during the committee process to include language from dozens of additional bills that the VFW has testified on during the 114th Congress. Important provisions include vastly improved postnatal care for female veterans, expanded canine therapy for veterans suffering with PTSD, extension of the Yellow Ribbon Program to Fry Scholarship recipients, the removal of the cap on VA home loan guarantees, automatic annual COLA adjustments for VA benefits, and the requirement that VA accept private evidence for disability compensation claims. These bills now move to the Senate for consideration. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for future updates.
4. President’s Budget Request: On Tuesday, the administration released its $4.23 trillion Fiscal Year 2017 budget request. The request includes $78.7 billion for VA’s discretionary accounts, which includes $68 billion for medical services. The VFW is pleased with the administration’s overall medical care funding level for FY2017 and the overall discretionary funding level, but believes the advance appropriations proposal for medical services in FY2018 would be woefully inadequate to meet continually growing demand for VA health care services. The VFW also joined its Independent Budget partners to release the IB’s budget recommendations for Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018. The annual report, which outlines funding requirements for VA programs, proposes $84.4 billion for FY2017, including $72.8 billion for medical services, $3.1 billion for the Veterans Benefits Administration and $2.5 billion for construction projects. For a summary of VA’s budget request, visit: http://www.va.gov/budget/docs/summary/Fy2017-VAsBudgetFactSheet.pdf. To read the IB’s budget recommendations, visit: http://www.independentbudget.org/2017/IB_BudgetReport_for_the_VAforFY2017_FY2018_fnl.pdf.  
5. VA Reevaluates Blue Water Navy Definition: A recent Veterans Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims decision, Gray v. McDonald, required that VA reevaluate and clarify its definition of “inland waterways.” For purposes of adjudicating disability claims regarding Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, VA will now determine if a body of water is considered an inland waterway by drawing straight lines across the opening in the landmass leading to the open ocean or other offshore water feature, such as a bay or inlet. VA’s modified interpretation does not meet the intent of the Gray v. McDonald decision. The VFW is deeply disappointed that VA’s modified interpretation of inland waterways continues to arbitrarily and unjustly exclude veterans who served aboard ships in the coastal waters of Vietnam and are denied presumptive benefits associated with Agent Orange exposure. For this reason, the VFW will continue to urge Congress to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on this change. To receive assistance with a VA disability claim, contact a local VFW Service Officer at: http://www.vfw.org/NVS/.
6. IOM Report on Gulf War Illness: On Thursday, the Institute of Medicine released a new report on the health conditions related to toxic exposure during the Gulf War. Due to the lack of new research since its last report and the fact that VA has not completed studies that Congress has mandated, IOM was unable to make new determinations on the relationship between health conditions and toxic exposure during the Gulf War. IOM was able to determine that Gulf War Illness is not a psychosomatic illness. However, it recommended that future research acknowledge the interconnection of brain and body for treatment. IOM also recommended that DOD and VA incorporate emerging technologies and personalized approaches to medical care and biomonitoring in future conflicts to better identify chemical exposures. To read more, visit: http://iom.nationalacademies.org/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2016/IOM_Gulf_War_Volume_10/Report-in-Brief.pdf.
7. Proposed Tricare Changes: The Pentagon’s FY2017 budget request once again proposes higher enrollment fees and copayments for working age military retirees and those aged 65 and older. Defense officials say the higher out-of-pocket costs will bring about better service and lower cumulative costs, but only after more details are learned can that judgement be made or disproved. One push DOD is trying to make is to get all beneficiaries to maximize the use of military treatment facilities (MTFs) and Tricare’s mail-order pharmacy. The two current Tricare programs of Prime and Standard/Extra will be renamed Tricare Select and Tricare Choice.
— Active-duty-families: Tricare Select will be available at no cost to active-duty family members provided they use MTFs or network providers. Tricare Choice will also be available at no cost to active-duty family members if they use an MTF, but will add modest copays ranging from $15 for in-network primary care to $50 for in-network emergency care. All active-duty family members would incur a 20-percent copay for using non-network providers regardless of plan.
— Retirees under age 65: The current family rate for those enrolled in Tricare Prime is essentially $565. Under the new Tricare Select, the annual enrollment fee would rise 24 percent to $700. Under Tricare Choice, the family enrollment rate would be $900, whereas the exiting Tricare Standard/Extra programs have no enrollment fee. Regardless of plan, retirees would incur no copay if using an MTF. For network care, Select enrollees would incur copays ranging from $20 for primary care to $75 for emergency care, and Choice enrollees would see copays of $25 for primary care and $90 for emergency care. Both plans would see 25 percent copays for non-network care.
— Retirees 65 and older: Retirees in the rank of O-6 and below would pay 0.25 percent of their gross retired pay to enroll in Tricare for Life, which acts as a secondary insurance to Medicare Part B. The quarter-percent enrollment fee would gradually increase to 1 percent by FY 2020. Flag officers, or those in the ranks of O-7 and above, would pay a $100 enrollment fee in FY 2017, which would gradually increase to $400 in FY 2020.
— Retiree pharmacy copays: The Pentagon is again pushing the use of Tricare’s mail-order pharmacy, since provides a three-month supply of medications for the same cost or less of a one-month refill from a network pharmacy. More about the home delivery program here: http://www.tricare.mil/CoveredServices/Pharmacy/FillPrescriptions/HomeDelivery.aspx.