American Legion: Update on military pay, veterans’ disability benefits

From the American Legion
Legislative Division update through Sept. 12

On September 9, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution formerly declaring the name of the new nation to be the “United States” of America. This replaced the term “United Colonies” in all continental communications.

American Legion update Louis Celli, director Legislative Division

American Legion update
Louis Celli, director
Legislative Division

Both the House and Senate are in session. The House tentatively plans to conduct its business until September 19, recess for ten days, then return on September 29, and adjourn for the election period on October 2. However, the House leadership is discussing passing a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the federal government through the election and then recessing the House for the general election campaign season as early as the end of September. The Senate plans to be in session every day, including weekends if necessary, and adjourn on September 23. Congress reconvenes the week following the November 4 elections on November 10.

The “must-pass” bill facing Congress before it leaves for the general election campaign season is a Continuing Resolution to fund the federal government. The House Appropriations Committee introduced H.J. Res. 124 on September 9 for that purpose. The dollar amounts for the ‘top line’ budget funding levels for this bill are set by the budget resolution already passed by Congress; but there are currently negotiations between Congress and the President over national security and other national needs not funded for at the present, so it is best you consider the current bill as a ‘blueprint’ at the present time and expect amendments for additional funding. The bill proposes to fund the federal government from October 1 to December 11 at current FY 2014 funding levels.

However, increased critical funding needs aside, the House leadership, for the most part, still wants a ‘clean’ CR (meaning no major policy legislation); so, once the funding amounts for the additional spending are decided, it should not take very long for the House to pass a ‘clean’ CR and send it to the Senate for debate. It appears the House will vote on the bill early next week. Complicating the CR’s passage in the Senate are Democrats wanting several policy reforms, such as immigration and corporate income tax changes. However, Senate Republican leaders have said these ideas must wait for bills that propose these reforms and they must not be put in the CR. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) may force votes on these issues for political ‘messaging’ purposes but, in the end, Democrats are unlikely to succeed in putting significant policy changes into the CR.

Consequently, the CR debate is shaping up to be one of House Republicans insisting on a “clean CR”, thus forcing the Senate to accept it or cause a government shutdown on October 1, the start of Fiscal Year 2015. For now, it is unlikely this shutdown will occur. The Senate is closely divided, 53 Democrats and 2 Independents versus 45 Republicans. According to current polling data, Republicans are pretty sure of picking up three currently Democrat Senate seats — South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana — in the November elections. If so, winning three more seats will give the Republicans majority control of the Senate in the upcoming 114th Congress that will be seated January 3, 2015. Thus, with Senate control at stake, it is unlikely either party will want to campaign with a government shutdown going on during the last few weeks before Election Day, November 4.

Looking ahead—as of now, polling data also suggests the Republicans will retain control of the House, and if they take control of the Senate in November, the odds will be against this 113th Congress agreeing in its remaining days to any significant national policy changes in the lame-duck session that follows the election—thus many issues will be deferred to January 2015 when the new Congress is seated. [It should be noted the National Defense Authorization Act has not passed this Congress and it likely will not be before the upcoming adjournment for the elections.]

CONGRESSIONAL ACTIVITIES

Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Update

The House and Senate Members and staffs of the Armed Services Committees continue to work to draft a compromise National Defense Authorization Act, Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 bill (in case the Senate is unable to pass its version of the NDAA specifying the budget and expenditures of the Department of Defense (DoD) during this September congressional session). The Senate Armed Services Committee has passed S. 2410 (its version of the NDAA) and sent it to the Senate floor where it is on the calendar and awaits debate. The bill provides $514 billion, including $496 billion for DoD’s base budget and $17.7 billion for other national security programs. The House passed H.R. 4435, the Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act, in May and it is on the Senate calendar too. That legislation authorizes $521.3 billion for the base budget and $79.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, primarily in Afghanistan.

Proposed Military Pay for 2015

President Obama notified Congress he wants a 1 percent increase in military pay for 2015. If Congress approves, the military pay scales below will become effective on January 1, 2015, and apply to active servicemembers of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The linked tables reflect proposed 2015 monthly pay based on the 1 percent pay raise, which goes into effect when the 2015 defense budget is signed.

Tables: Proposed 2015 Active Duty Pay Charts
Tables: Proposed 2015 Drill Pay Charts

Factors that affect a Servicemember’s Military Pay:

  • Annual pay raise.
  • Longevity raise: every 2 years based on the number of years in service.
  • Promotion.
  • Number of Drill Periods (National Guard and Reserve).
  • Basic Allowance for Housing Increase: BAH (based on location).
  • Basic Allowance for Subsistence increase: BAS.
  • Cost of Living Allowance increase: COLA (based on location).
  • Special Pay(s): based on occupation, language skills, combat, flight, hazardous duty.

Senate Passes Increase in Veterans’ Disability Benefits

On September 11, the Senate passed a bill that would increase compensation benefits for veterans with service-connected disabilities. Senator Mark Begich (AK) introduced S. 2258, the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act, which would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to increase the rate of veterans’ disability compensation starting on December 1. The cost-of-living increase would match that of Social Security benefits. The bill now goes to the House for action.

Hearings

HVAC Probes Mismanagement at the VA Board of Appeals

On September 10, the Oversight and Investigations (O&I) subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC) returned to action with a hearing focused on “Metrics, Measurements and Mismanagement in the Board of Veterans Appeals.” The opening panel focused on testimony from Ms Kelli Kordich, Army veteran and senior counsel at the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) with 15 years of experience evaluating and adjudicating veterans’ appeals, as well as testimony from American Legion Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation division staff.

Ms Kordich detailed a laundry list of disingenuous practices promoted by BVA management, from corruption to toxic working environments, from retaliation to intimidation – going so far as to say managers “weaponize [VA’s] ICARE motto” in order to browbeat VA employees who question directives. She spoke of the BVA “rocket docket” that takes easier veterans’ cases out of docket order, contrary to the law as well as fair practice, at the Board. Finally, she detailed how senior management, aware of an impending backlash when the extent of the outrageous backlog of claim appeals became known, directed cases be sent to judges for decisions long before the judges were ready to decide the claims; and initiating the program the day former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned.

Legion VAR staff detailed The American Legion’s concerns and focused on the chronic poor decision-making and lack of attention to detail that leads to claims cases cycling back and forth between BVA and the regional offices. Three out of every four cases worked by The American Legion at the BVA are either sent back on remand (which means the case returns to the regional office for further review and a longer wait time for a decision for the veteran) or are granted at BVA and detailing the extent of errors at the regional office level in the decision. Over 75 percent of claims are found by the Board to have been improperly adjudicated at the regional level.

Ms Laura Eshkenazi, Executive in Charge and Vice Chairman at the BVA, attempted to answer these charges on behalf of the BVA in the second panel, but struggled at times. Eshkenazi largely relied on the “record numbers of claims decisions” the BVA was issuing. However, under pressure from Chairman Mike Coffman (CO) she was forced to admit, as Ms. Kordich had detailed in her earlier testimony, the numbers could be seen as inflated, as many of the “decisions” did not reflect a finished claim, but merely referred to the claims being remanded back to the regional offices to correct details before they could be finally adjudicated. In some cases, claims were “counted” for decisions as many as three times a year, grossly inflating the BVA numbers.

HVAC Markup Hearing

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a markup hearing on September 10 and reported favorably on several bills to the full House. A summary of relevant bills follows:

H.R. 5404, The Department of Veterans Affairs Expiring Authorities Act of 2014: The bill extends authorities for a number of VA programs, as well as the Departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development. he bill includes technical clarifications necessary to improve implementation of the recently passed Veterans Access to Care Act, identified by the VA Secretary as problematic to enable full implementation of the bill.

H.R. 3593, The VA Construction Assistance Act of 2013: This legislation, proposed by Representative Mike Coffman (CO), would enable outside authority, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, to oversee VA construction projects such as those projects languishing in Colorado, Florida. and Louisiana.

H.R. 4276, Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Care Improvement Act of 2014: The original purpose of this bill, to extend authority for a program that provides assisted living services for veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) was accomplished through the Veterans Access to Care Act passed this summer. However, this bill amends the act to improve the program by clarifying the reporting requirements of the program, and expanding the definition of assisted living to make the program useable by more affected veterans.

H.R. 4971, Ask Veterans Act: Introduced by Representative Beto O’Rourke (TX) to require VA to utilize third party surveys to ensure veterans are receiving top quality care. The bill was amended to include provisions that address hearings for veterans on appeal, and ensure veterans from the special operations community who have classified records still get full access to mental health services.

H.R. 5094: This bill, sponsored by Chairman Jeff Miller (FL) would provide authority to VA leadership to recoup bonus money from VA Senior Executives who are later found to have engaged in malfeasant or substandard actions.

H.R. 4862, Our Veterans Deserve Better Act, was amended by Representative Dina Titus (NV) to correct a provision in Title 38 which states VA benefits for spouses are determined by State law. Her amendment would make it possible for VA to provide benefits to same sex partners; even in states where homosexual marriage was not recognized as legal. VA is currently prohibited from doing so by statute. After debate, the amendment was defeated by a vote of 12 to 11. With the amendment defeated, the bill was not considered further, and is not on the list of bills recommended favorably in the report of the committee.

New VA Secretary Addresses Senate

In his first appearance before Congress since being approved as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald insisted everyone call him “Bob” and pressed his point that everyone, from the lowest employee in VA to the Senators and Members of Congress, needed to talk directly to each other on first name terms to start solving the problems of VA.

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SVAC) held the hearing September 9, to get updates on the state of VA healthcare in Phoenix, Arizona, in the wake of the crisis this year that led to the previous Secretary’s resignation. The majority of Senators present patted themselves on the back for passing the Veterans Access to Care Act this year to start the reform process at VA, yet all cautioned there was still much work to be done. Ranking Member Richard Burr (NC) cautioned VA “still has a caustic and toxic culture from top to bottom that needs changing”; Senator Mazie Hirono (HI) raised concerns the coming tide of Global War on Terror veterans soon to be downsized to the private sector from active duty would find VA “underfunded, under resourced, and overloaded” while Senator Jerry Moran (KS) spoke of the importance in rural states of the continued use of Project ARCH (Access Received Closer to Home).

Richard Griffin, Acting Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke on behalf of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and provided updates on the full report of the OIG on the Phoenix crisis. Griffin noted the new Secretary had concurred with all 24 recommendations from the report and presented acceptable action plans to correct the deficiencies

The remainder of the hearing focused largely on recent news reports which suggested VA may have had ‘undue influence’ in the final report from OIG. The news story in question focused on a particular sentence, added late in the editing process, which stated, “[the OIG] could not conclusively find that patient deaths were linked to delays in care.” Earlier drafts of the report, which overall was extremely critical of VA care in Phoenix and stated categorically that patients suffered and were made worse by VA lapses in care, did not contain language exonerating VA from blame in the patient deaths.

Griffin stood by the report, however, and denied any VA influence had changed report language, stating all language came from “senior IG officials.” The other doctors present representing the OIG stood firm behind the analysis that none of the deaths could be linked to delays in care, even when Senator Dean Heller (NV) challenged them by noting. “Your report states 177 mental health patients had delays in access to care and 77 of those committed suicide, yet you can’t link a single suicide to the delays in care?”

Senator Patty Murray (WA) grilled McDonald closely about delays in mental health care, asking why VA continues to struggle to provide care. McDonald acknowledged a nationwide shortage in mental health providers and noted that discussions with medical school programs had revealed lower insurance reimbursement for mental health care may be deterring some candidates from pursuing careers in mental health because of the financial difficulties involved. Still, McDonald was excited about the challenge. The Secretary noted, “I’m excited for VA because we get to be pathfinders. This is a national problem and we get to be the ones to trail blaze a solution.”

Other Activities

Pentagon Announces Army Reserve and Army National Guard Recruiting Shortfalls

On September 4 the Department of Defense announced that the Army National Guard missed its July recruiting goal and is only at 97.7 percent of its recruiting goal. The Army Reserve also missed its goal and is now at 92.7 percent.

Military Service Statistics of 113th Congress Show Continued Decline of Veterans Elected to Congress

At the beginning of the 113th Congress, there were 108 Members (20% of the total membership) who had served or were serving in the military, 10 fewer than at the beginning of the 112th Congress (118 Members) and 12 fewer than in the 111th Congress (120 members). According to lists compiled by CQ Roll Call, the House currently has 88 veterans (including 2 female Members and 2 Delegates); the Senate has 18.

These Members served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, as well as during times of peace. Many served in the Reserves and the National Guard. Eight House Members and one Senator still serve in the Reserves, and six House Members still serve in the National Guard.

The number of veterans in the 113th Congress reflects the trend of steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, 64% of the members of the 97th Congress (1981-1982) were veterans; and in the 92nd Congress (1971-1972), 73% of the Members were veterans.

Service-Connected Disabled Veteran Set-Aside Contract Fraud Convictions in Kansas

On September 4, United States Attorney Barry Grissom of the United States Attorney’s Office of the District of Kansas reported the co-owner of a defunct Missouri construction company pleaded guilty to defrauding a federal program that set aside contracts for businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. He said, “Michael J. Parker, Blue Springs, Missouri, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud against the United States, one count of major program fraud, and one count of wire fraud. In his plea, he admitted he [Michael J. Parker] and his father, co-defendant, Warren K. Parker, made false claims in order for their company, Silver Star Construction LLC of Blue Springs, Missouri, and Stilwell, Kansas, to obtain more than $6.7 million in contracts from the Veterans Administration and more than $748,000 in contracts from the Department of Defense. The contracts were awarded under the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program.” He went on to say that after an extensive investigation, federal agents determined that, in fact, Warren Parker never was classified as a service-disabled veteran by the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense. Sentencing will be set for a later date. Both parties have agreed to recommend a sentence of 51 months in federal prison and restitution. Co-defendants include:, Warren K. Parker, who was sentenced to 87 months; Mary Parker, who is set for jury trial October 6; Thomas Whitehead, who is awaiting sentencing; and Silver Star Construction, LLC, which is set for trial October 6. Attorney Grissom commended the Small Business Administration’s Office of Inspector General; the Defense Criminal Investigative Service; the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, Criminal Investigation Division and the General Services Administration’s Office of Inspector General; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tris Hunt for their work on the case.

Congressional Research Service Report on the Militarization of Law Enforcement

Much has been written lately about surplus military equipment that is given to local law enforcement departments. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) produced a report on the militarization of law enforcement which shows the Defense Department is a good source of equipment far beyond the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles in the news. The Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office provides state and local law enforcement agencies with surplus gear to support the war on drugs and the global war on terror. This includes among other things, according to the CRS report, kitchen equipment, lawn maintenance tools, computers, office furniture, bedding, and tents.

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION UPDATES

Staff Development

Legislative staff worked with Congressional personal and committee staffs on various legislative matters. The subjects of these meetings included upcoming hearing schedules for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee as staff continues to work to develop legislation to continue to address solutions to problems within VA. Legislative staff continues to engage congressional staffs to determine the status of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015; and the twelve appropriations bills for FY 2015, all of which must be passed (or in lieu of an appropriations bill a CR to fund the federal government must be passed) by October 1 for the new fiscal year.

Legislative staff continued working with both House and Senate staffs on H.R. 2841, a bill to provide mandatory separation physical examinations for reserve component servicemember and to the same standard as the active forces. We continue to ask you contact your representative and senators and request support for this bill and quick passage before the end of the 113th Congress.

Legislative staff is reviewing the resolutions passed at the National Convention that have ‘Legislative Intent’.

Legislative staff conducted a Legislative Division Orientation Briefing for the 2014-15 National Vice-Commanders on Monday, September 8.

Letters of Support

No Letters of Support were delivered this week.

Update on Flag Amendment Bills

On May 22, 2013, House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 47 was introduced by Representative Spencer Bachus (AL). This legislation is a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration. Its text states simply: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” The House measure currently has 29 cosponsors.

On June 13, 2013, Senator Orrin Hatch (UT) introduced Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 17, a companion bill to H.J. Res. 47. This Senate measure has 23 cosponsors.

The task before us now is finding additional cosponsors for these two measures. Please contact your representative and senators, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. [Resolution 272-2012]

Louis J. Celli Jr. retired as a master sergeant after serving 22 years in the U.S. Army. He became legislative director for the American Legion, the nation’s largest veteran service organization, in 2012.

Filed in: Latest Headlines, Military and Veterans, Opinion

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