Military News For July 15, 2022

Military News

Military news is more than just the latest developments at the “tip of the spear” so to speak. This column discusses news that affects the military community including things that affect the military family, veteran rights, benefits, and more. Our news coverage here does include some news on current operations, but we focus more on military-related issues that affect the community at large.

Military News For July 15, 2022

July 14, 2022, was the day the House passed the National Defense Authorization act with an $840 billion price tag.

This bill amounts to a 7% increase in defense spending compared to last year, and features some potentially controversial measures including an amendment banning arms deals or weapons transfer to any government that has violated international humanitarian law. A different amendment could frustrate an F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkey.

But none of the above is set in stone, the Senate won’t vote on its own version of the National Defense Authorization Act until September according to a report published by Defense News.

RELATED: Proposed 2023 Military Pay Charts

Navy Improves Sexual Assault Reporting Procedures

Stars and Stripes reports the U.S. Navy has enhanced certain sexual assault reporting procedures.

These new guidelines are meant to “align with Defense Department policy” according to a Navy statement. Sexual assault victims in the Navy now have the option to seek a restricted, confidential report even if the victim has already made statements about the incident.

Such restricted or confidential reports allow a victim to notify a health care provider or sexual assault response coordinator about an incident without notifying the victim’s chain of command. The Navy’s administrative order also directs commanding officers to consider a sexual assault victim’s request for a transfer to another unit or base within five days. These policy changes became effective the day they were announced.

U.S. Army Experiments With Remote Work Options

The U.S. Army did an experiment with remote work sometime in 2020, allowing a Pentagon employee to live in Florida and commute to in-person meetings and other work on an as-needed basis. Now, that experiment is being expanded according to Army Times.

Military doctrine includes the notion of “centralized control, decentralized execution” for battlefield operations, in-theater troop organization, and more.

That notion could inform the basic work routine for some Army staffers thanks to what is known as an “innovation cell” for Army Human Resources Command. A select number of Army troops are joining the cell, staying at their current physical duty stations but clocking in, so to speak, into a remote work environment at another base.

It’s expected that such a program could work well for Army coders and other IT professionals as well as “staff workers” but Army officials do acknowledge that not all military career fields are appropriate for remote duty.

Is The U.S. Navy Failing On The Mental Health Issue?

Navy Times reports the United States Navy is “struggling” to fill mental health care provider positions according to information from the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Sailors are, at press time, still facing long delays in mental health care opportunities; the Navy can’t seem to fill licensed civilian and contractor care provider jobs. The Navy needs 455 jobs filled in this area alone, at press time some 132 of those jobs remained vacant.

Navy Times reports some sailors complaining about six-week wait times for mental healthcare appointments; the report also notes that the overall availability of mental healthcare professionals in the United States is very low–the nation could be short nearly eight thousand psychiatrists alone by 2025.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Era Still Haunts Veterans

The Washington Post covered the ten-year anniversary of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Clinton-era policy that forced LGBTQ military members to hide their identities and effectively serve as second-class citizens in uniform.

The Post article notes that some 100 thousand troops were kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and many received Other Than Honorable or other punitive discharges as a result.

Those punitive discharges have prevented many LGBTQ veterans from qualifying for VA benefits. In September 2021, a blog published on the VA official site announced new guidelines for allowing VA representatives to approve benefits for those discharged for “homosexual conduct”, HIV status, gender identity, and more.

But following that announcement, what has changed? According to the Post there has been no official word from the Department of Veterans Affairs on how this might be implemented or whether it has even been implemented in a formal manner.

The Washington Post reports there was an attempt to get more information via a public records request to review any new VA policy on this issue; the VA “acknowledged receipt of the request, but they have not fulfilled it” and the VA declined to comment. As of press time, LGBTQ service members denied veteran benefits because of a so-called gay discharge are still subject to the same denial for benefits.

Stolen Valor Con Artist Pleads Guilty

Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, a Rhode Island resident who pretended to be a Marine veteran with cancer, has pleaded guilty to a number of charges including wire fraud, forgery, theft, and “fraudulent use of medals” according to a Marine Corps Times report. Cavanaugh collected a quarter of a million dollars in veteran benefits and donations according to federal prosecutors who add that the con artist agreed to pay back some $80K.

There is no evidence at press time that Cavanaugh ever served in uniform, though she did work at a VA Medical Center. During the trial, prosecutors alleged Cavanaugh illegally accessed VA medical records to help her create forged records that indicated she had received an Honorable Discharge and was suffering from cancer.

Cavanaugh wore a Marine uniform and unearned medals including a Purple Heart when attending public events. She received more than $200 thousand in assistance from the Wounded Warrior program and another $18K in assistance from a Virginia-based group called Code of Support”. She faces up to 20 years in prison, though prosecutors have not asked for the maximum.

 

3 Reasons Military Pay Increases in 2022

Overall Military Pay and Compensation Set to Increase in 2022.  Here’s Why.

The New Year has arrived, and with it comes the usual focus on improving certain areas of our lives. We set goals for healthier lifestyles, productive use of our time, and improving our financial situations. For service members, there are three things that will have an impact on your 2022 military pay.

BAH Increase

The Department of Defense released the 2022 Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rates in mid-December, 2021. According to the DoD press release, BAH rates are set to increase by 5.1% on average.

For most military families, the BAH portion of their compensation is used to the fullest extent possible, which is covering rent/mortgage and applicable utilities. The increase is based on information collected by the DoD in partnership with military commanders and local installation housing offices. Data from hundreds of housing areas is compiled and analyzed to determine when and if increases are necessary for military personnel.

For more information, the Defense Travel Management Office (DTMO) published the 2022 BAH Rates.

To calculate your BAH rate, use the CollegeRecon BAH Calculator.

COLA Increase

In another DoD press release, the 2022 Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) rates took effect on 1 January, 2022, with a 2.7% increase. This allowance offsets the higher prices faced by military members at duty locations whose cost of living is higher than the national average.

When it comes to income, more money is good. But it’s not all good news for some locations. The DoD reported that six Military Housing Areas (MHA) will see their COLA rates decrease, and 25 MHAs will no longer receive COLA. The two largest decreases were both in Massachusetts, with the Boston and Worcester MHA rates dropping from 4 to 0 percent.

New York City still has the highest COLA rate in the US at 6 percent.

To calculate the COLA rate for your current location, check out DTMO’s CONUS COLA Calculator.

Deferral on Payroll Tax Ends

For most military members, 2021 saw a reduction in pay to recoup the payroll taxes that were not collected as part of a 2020 Presidential Memorandum. The amount active service members paid each month was upwards of 2% of their base pay. The situation was beyond their control, but the service members went a whole year with less pay.

Now that 2022 has arrived, the payroll tax deferral has ended for most service members. This naturally means that paychecks will “increase”. While it’s not an actual increase in pay, it is letting America’s Defenders have what they deserve, again.

Good Timing?

With the rate of inflation rising to the highest it’s been in decades, it would seem that these increases in pay may help ease the financial strain many are facing today. Because of this, it is ever more prevalent to spend and save our money wisely.

For low-income service members, the Basic Needs Allowance has been approved and will start sometime in 2022.

For residents of some states, retired military pay is now tax-free, which leaves more money in the bank.

I suggest further reading The 10 Best Financial Benefits for Members of the Military. This will help you keep your eyes on your benefits.

 

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Basic Needs Allowance for Low-Income Service Members

New Basic Needs Allowance for Low-Income Military Members

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2022 (NDAA) has been sent to the president’s desk for signature as of 23 December, 2021. If it becomes a law, provisions for a new Basic Needs Allowance will move forward in an effort to combat the food-security issues faced by many lower enlisted service members.

Food Insecurity in the Military?

In 2021, the National Military Family Association (NMFA) conducted a survey of over 11,000 service members and their families. They asked one question:

“In the past 12 months, have you, or someone in your household, had to visit a charitable food distribution site to make ends meet?”

The results of that survey are mind-blowing. The NMFA Survey found that 14% of those surveyed, or 1,632 military families, reported that they visited a food bank within the past year.

In another study, Blue Star Families conducted a Pulse Check between March 1-16, 2021. Over 4,000 respondents participated in the poll, which included active military, veterans, National Guard, Reserve, and Gold Star spouses or family members.

The Blue Star Family Pulse Check found that 18% of active duty families and 23% of National Guard families reported having difficulties in purchasing food and other essentials within the past year.

Furthermore, within the active duty ranks, food security ranked as a most immediate need for Junior Enlisted (22%), Mid/Senior Enlisted (20%), and Commissioned Officers (23%). In other words, nearly a fifth of the service members polled indicated that food security is an immediate need for them.

Military Family Basic Needs Allowance

With the passage of the NDAA, each of the services is supposed to identify families within their ranks who may benefit from the new Basic Needs Allowance.

According to the text of the legislation, any families whose income is below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines will be eligible for the allowance. For reference, the 2021 Federal Poverty Guidelines for a family of three is $21,960 annually, or $1,830 per month. 

The 130% amount for a family of three is $28,548 annually, or $2,379 per month. According to the 2021 Military Pay Charts, that would mean most lower enlisted service members ranked from E1-E3 are eligible if they have families.

How Much Is the Basic Needs Allowance?

According to the text of the bill, the amount of the allowance will be determined as follows:

The amount of the monthly allowance payable to a member…shall be the amount equal to 130% of the Federal poverty guidelines of the Department of Health and Human Services for the calendar year during which the allowance is paid based on the location of the member and the number of individuals in the household of the member during the month for which the allowance is paid; minus the gross household income of the member during the preceding year; divided by 12.

The gross household income means all household income, which seems to mean BAH and BAS are also included. However, the Secretary of Defense has the latitude to determine whether or not the BAH should be counted in the calculation of the new allowance. This provision mainly revolves around areas with a high cost of living.

What About Families with More than One Eligible Member?

If a household has two or more members who are eligible to receive the Basic Needs Allowance, only one of them can receive the allowance at any given time.

Who Is Not Eligible for the Basic Needs Allowance?

A service member who does not have dependents is not eligible for the allowance.

Cadets or Midshipmen at any of the armed forces service academies are ineligible for the allowance.

If a service member is eligible and then gets promoted, prompting for a permanent increase in pay, and that pay increase raises the service member above the policy’s financial guidelines, then that member becomes ineligible.

Curiously, if a service member is demoted and their pay is reduced to within the guidelines of the Basic Needs Allowance, that member will remain ineligible solely based on the reduction in rank.

Any eligible service member may voluntarily elect not to receive the benefit, and they must do so in writing.

How to Apply for Basic Needs Allowance

An eligible service member must apply for the Basic Needs Allowance once the administrative system is in place to do so. Because it’s a new program, they still need to figure out the regulations and policies necessary to administer it, as well as the forms necessary for submission by the service member.

The legislation does state that eligible service members will have to apply or verify their eligibility at least annually. So, it’s not a once-and-done allowance.

Once the Basic Needs Allowance is up and running, the services will begin screening recruits during Initial Entry Training to determine their eligibility.

Timeline for the Basic Needs Allowance

The allowance will begin on or after the date that is one year from the enactment of the National Defense Act of 2022. So, if the president signs it today, the allowance will begin a year from now.

The text of the bill also says that the termination of the Basic Needs Allowance will be December 31, 2027.

More Information Needed

The legislation tasks the Secretary of Defense to conduct a study on food insecurity in the Armed Forces. The results of this study will include:

  1. An analysis of “food deserts” that impact members of the military and their families who live in areas with high costs of living.
  2. A comparison of the current methodology used to determine areas with high costs of living.
  3. Leveraging the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the buying power and consumer spending in specific regions.
  4. The feasibility of setting up a web portal for members of the military to apply for the allowance.
  5. Determining an appropriate allowance to supplement the income of service members suffering food insecurity.

The Defense Secretary will report the initial findings of the study no later than April 1, 2022. The study must be completed and final results submitted to the Committees on Armed Services of both congressional houses no later than October 1, 2022.

That explains the 12 month delay to implement once the NDAA is signed.

Closing Opinion

First, it’s a shame that there are thousands of military families who struggle to make ends meet. With a wallet-killing inflation and a supply chain lag, the problem is fed by things that are largely outside of their control. Even so, no service member or their dependents should have to worry about food.

Second, I’m glad to see that the issue has made it to the halls of Congress. While this legislation is just the first step, only time will tell if the Basic Needs Allowance is as effective as we all hope.

Third, and this is just my bias as a Veteran, if they’re setting aside millions of dollars to implement a new program and conduct a year-long study, why don’t they just raise the pay of our service members.

I understand that food insecurity doesn’t impact a large portion of our Armed Forces. But even one Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airmen, Coast Guardsman, or Guardian who can’t feed their family is a national travesty.

 

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New Legislation Impacting the Veteran Community

On November 30, 2021, President Biden signed a series of new bills into laws, and ones that have a direct impact on the military community.

Protecting Moms Who Served Act (SB 796)

This new law requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to begin a program on Maternity Care Coordination. The new program is expected to cost $15 million for FY 2022 beyond what is already appropriated for maternity health care in the VA.

Another less advertised portion of the new bill is a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) related to maternal morbidity among pregnant and post-partum veterans.

Within two years, the GAO will submit a report on severe maternal morbidity among pregnant/postpartum veterans, focusing almost exclusively on whether or not there are racial or ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes for veterans.

The report will also serve a fundamental role in future legislative and administrative actions that aim to increase access to mental and behavioral health care for at-risk veterans. The report will provide recommendations to address issues like:

  • Homelessness
  • Food insecurity
  • Poverty

The overall aim of the legislation and its subsequent reporting requirements is to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity, and to address any racial or ethnic disparities in health outcomes for pregnant and postpartum veterans.

RELATED: Dogs & Vets: Helping Veterans with PTSD

 

>> Have questions about you or your spouse’s military benefits? We’ve partnered with the Veterans Education Project to help find the answers you need. Find the answers to your benefits questions today!

 

Hire Veteran Health Heroes Act (SB 894)

This legislation requires the VA to engage with the Department of Defense (DoD) to identify members of the Armed Forces within health care occupations that could be employed by the VA once they’ve separated from the service.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs will establish a program in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense to identify service members that may be willing to seek employment with the VA after separation from the service.

If a member of the Armed Forces…expresses an interest in working in a health care occupation within the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall refer the member to a recruiter of the Department for consideration of open positions in the specialty and geography of interest to the member.

However, any such referral should not be seen as a guarantee of future employment with the VA, as the interview and hiring processes are still in place to fill vacant positions. The goal of this legislation is to expedite the hiring process within the VA to address staffing shortages that plague the organization.

 

>> Find opportunities with companies looking to assist veterans and military spouses.  Get started today!

 

Senate Bill 1031 – A Study in Disparities

This legislation requires the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study regarding racial or ethnic disparities and their impact on benefits issues by the VA.

The Government Accountability Office will conduct a study to assess whether there are disparities associated with race and ethnicity when it comes to:

  • Compensation benefits administered by the VA
  • Disability ratings, “with specific consideration of disability evaluations based on pain”
  • The rejection of fully developed claims for benefits.

Within one year of the passing of this law, the Comptroller General will brief Congress on the initial results of the study.

The text of the bill does not indicate the reason for such a study, but it seems to imply that there is cause for concern of racial prejudice at the VA when it comes to evaluating claims and administering benefits.

One report from Maria Aguilera of KCEN TV in Temple, Texas, claims that Biden “has heard from veterans of color that when they return home from serving they’re treated differently from white veterans.” If these claims are true, then action should be taken immediately to ensure the fair treatment of all veterans, regardless of race or ethnicity.

However, conducting a study for over a year doesn’t seem like the most direct approach to addressing racial disparities within the VA.

Will the study release the names and incidents of those who have directly contacted the President?

Will these veterans who have allegedly been profiled by the VA have their cases reviewed in light of the findings of this massive study?

That remains to be seen since the text of the bill does not make that clear. It states only that the Comptroller will provide “recommendations”, if it has any.

A Legislative Watch for Veterans

There is always legislation on the docket for both houses of Congress. The ones of most interest to us are those that directly impact you, the veteran and military members. 

We spend hours combing through tedious and sometimes monstrous bills to find any information that you can use to your benefit. Stay tuned for more legislative updates as they develop.

(Image courtesy of WeTakethePictures via Shutterstock)

 

>> Have questions about you or your spouse’s military benefits? We’ve partnered with the Veterans Education Project to help find the answers you need. Find the answers to your benefits questions today!

 

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Military Benefit Changes for 2022

Military Benefit Changes for 2022

These are the changes that have been announced so far. Please keep checking back, as we will continue updating new changes to your military benefits for 2022.

TRICARE Updates 2022

TRICARE Pharmacy Network

TRICARE Pharmacy Network will have updates going into 2022. As of December 15th, 2021, Walmart and Sam’s Club will no longer take TRICARE. CVS will be added after being away from the network for the last five years.

 

>> Have questions about you or your spouse’s military benefits? We’ve partnered with the Veterans Education Project to help find the answers you need. Find the answers to your benefits questions today!

 

TRICARE Premiums

TRICARE premiums will change for reservists, retired reserves, and some military family members. 

Monthly premiums for TRICARE Reserve Select will be going down. For individuals, they will drop 1% from $47.20 to $46.70. For families, it will go down 3.8% from $238.99 to $229.99. 

Monthly premiums for Retired Reserve will be going up. For Individuals, they will be changing from $484.83 to $502.32. For families, they will be changing from $1,165 to $1,206.59. 

TRICARE Young Adult monthly premiums will also be going up. TRICARE Young Adult Select Premiums will increase from $257 to $265, and TRICARE Young Adult Prime Premiums will increase from $459 to $512. 

Continued Health Care Benefit Program quarterly premiums are also going up. For the member, the amount is changing from $1,599 to $1,654, and for member and family, it is changing from $3,605 to $4,079. 

You should also check on the TRICARE fees that may have changed for 2022 on their website.

COLA Increases

COLA will have an increase of 5.9% in 2022. This is a big jump from the 2021 increase of 1.3%. The last time COLA was close to this percentage was in 2008 with an increase of 5.8%. 

COLA increases are based on the increase in the CPI-W, from the 3rd quarter of 2020 through the third quarter of 2021. Increases can change year to year. The last few years have seen 0.3% in 2017, 2.0% in 2018, 2.8% in 2019, and 1.6% in 2020. Military retirees, those who receive disability payments, or other benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, federal retirees, as well as Social Security recipients, will all see a 5.9% increase in their monthly payments.

Retirement Pay

When it comes to retirement pay, it is important to keep in mind that since the increase for the year is calculated differently than active duty pay, the raises can seem a little different based on the year. Based on the 5.9% increase, in 2022 you would receive $59 for every $1,000 in government benefits you receive. If a veteran is receiving around $2,000 a month as retirement pay, they would see an increase of $118 a month.

A veteran who entered military service after July 31, 1986, has had the option of going with the “Career Status Bonus” or (CSB)/REDUX instead of the “High 3-year average” option with regards to retirement pay. This means that they would have received $30,000 during their 15th year of service and will see a reduced retirement rate until they are 62 years old. This also means that their COLA increase is reduced by 1%, which would change the amount of the increase they would see in 2022.

VA Disability

VA Disability payments would also increase in 2022. A veteran with a 60% rating would see about a $51 a month increase, while a veteran with a 100% rating would see about an $85 a month increase. The amount they would receive depends on their rating as well as their veteran-dependent status. The rate for 2022 would be 5.9% and is based on COLA rates.

Social Security Payments

According to the Social Security Administration, the average monthly Social Security benefit in June 2021 was $1,555 for the retired worker. Based on this, the average beneficiary would see an increase of $87 in 2022.

3.0% Military Pay Increase

A 2.7% pay raise has been proposed for 2022. This is a little less than last year which was 3.0%. For junior enlisted, this would be an increase of around $768 a year.

The main guideline for determining military pay raises comes from the quarterly report of the US Employment Cost Index (ECI) which is put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The fiscal 2022 NDAA will need to be passed and then the 2.7% raise will take effect as of Jan 1, 2022.

BAH 2022 Rates

BAH is the Basic Allowance for Housing. The 2022 BAH rates have not been posted yet and the DOD’s BAH calculator still needs to be updated. You can use this to find out how much you will be bringing home for BAH in 2022 once updated. Remember, if your rate goes down you are grandfathered into the old rate unless you move or change rank.

BAH is based on your rank, dependent status, and geographic location. BAH is intended to cover 95% of your housing costs. This % can change each year and was 99% just a few years ago. Your rates are based on your duty station zip code.

Your new BAH rate will go into effect on January 1st and you will see it in your January 15, 2022 paycheck.

The proposed BAH increase will need to be approved by Congress and the President. That being said, individual rates are based on the cost of living in your exact location. 2.7% is being proposed for 2022. In 2021, BAH was 2.9%.

BAS 2022 Rates

BAS (Basic Allowance for Subsistence) 2022 rates have not been updated yet but 2.3% is proposed. BAS had a 3.7% increase in 2021. Rates have not changed all that much in the last few years since they are based on the cost of food.

BAS is meant to be used to pay for food for enlisted and officers. It is only intended to help pay for food, not to cover all the costs. The rate also does not change based on dependents because the money is not meant to cover food for family members.

The increase will take place on January 1st and you will see it on your January 15th, 2022 paychecks.

We will update as more 2022 military benefits changes are announced!

 

>> Have questions about you or your spouse’s military benefits? We’ve partnered with the Veterans Education Project to help find the answers you need. Find the answers to your benefits questions today!

 

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VA Extends Deadline for Gulf War Veterans’ Disability Claims

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently extended a deadline for Gulf War Veterans to claim disability related to their service.

Originally planned to end December 31, 2021, the VA extended the date to service more Gulf War Veterans claiming disability diagnoses. They’ve extended the deadline to December 31, 2026.

Gulf War Syndrome

The extension revolves around conditions related to something called “Gulf War Syndrome”. These illnesses have been reported by Gulf War Veterans, and they are usually unexplained chronic symptoms. The VA prefers the terms “chronic multisymptom illness” or “undiagnosed illness”. 

Regardless of the name, the symptoms commonly include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Indigestion
  • Insomnia
  • Dizziness
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Memory problems

Gulf War Veterans do not need to prove a connection between their military service and illnesses to receive VA disability compensation. 

Connection to Military Service

According to the VA’s Public Health website, “[the] VA presumes certain chronic, unexplained symptoms existing for 6 months or more are related to Gulf War service without regard to cause.”

Presumptive conditions mentioned by the VA can include:

  • Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) – a condition of long-term and severe fatigue that is not relieved by rest. It is not directly caused by other conditions.
  • Fibromyalgia – a condition associated with widespread muscle pain. Insomnia, muscle stiffness, headaches, and memory problems are also associated with this condition.
  • Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders – This condition refers to recurring symptoms in any part of the gastrointestinal tract. This includes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), functional dyspepsia, or abdominal pain.
  • Undiagnosed Illnesses – This could include a number of conditions like abnormal weight loss, cardiovascular disease, muscle and joint pain, headaches, menstrual disorders, neurological / psychological problems, respiratory disorders, and sleep disturbances.

To be eligible for compensation, a Gulf War Veteran must have been diagnosed by the VA of at least 10% disabled after their service.

RELATED: Disabled Veterans May Get Expanded Retirement Benefits

Who is a Gulf War Veteran?

According to the VA’s definition, Gulf War Service “is active military duty in any … areas in the Southwest Asia theater of operations at any time [between] August 2, 1990 to present.” 

Veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2010) and Operation New Dawn (2010-2011) are also considered Gulf War Veterans.

The Southwest Asia Theater of Operations includes the following areas:

  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Saudi Arabia
  • The neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia
  • Bahrain
  • The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)
  • Oman
  • Gulf of Aden
  • Gulf of Oman
  • Waters of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea
  • The airspace above these locations

If you’ve served in any of these areas, and at the eligible times, then you should take advantage of the VA’s free Gulf War Registry Health Exam. This exam will help find potential long-term problems related to your service in the Gulf. 

Additionally, Veterans eligible for the Gulf War Registry may also be eligible for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

Benefits For Gulf War Veterans

For our Gulf War Veterans suffering from illnesses related to their service, there are a multitude of benefits available.

In addition to the health exam and registries listed above, Gulf War Veterans may be eligible for disability compensation for their conditions. These can be the “medically unexplained illnesses” identified by the VA, and can also include certain Infectious Diseases associated with military service in the Gulf.

To file a new claim, or expand a current disability rating, learn more about VA disability compensation to see what you may be entitled to.

RELATED: How to File VA Disability Claims

Finally, if you served in the Gulf and you’re suffering from any of the conditions listed above, then get your free Gulf War Health Exam. You have just over five years to get this done!

 

 

 

Status of COVID-19 Vaccination For Military Families

Military Families’ Covid-19 Vaccination Status

The Defense Health Agency (DHA) has stated that staring in April, the COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be widely available to military families.

During a virtual town hall hosted by Blue Star Families and the American Red Cross, Director of DHA Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place discussed the coronavirus and the availability of vaccines for military families. These vaccinations will not be offered everywhere, but should be accessible sometime in April at a “significant number” of military treatment facilities (MTF).

All MTFs are following the Department of Defense’s (DoD) phased distribution process, and most are currently vaccinating in the 1B and 1C stages. According to DHA, “there are more than 5 million TRICARE beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 64,” and most of them fall into Stage 2, those with no underlying medical conditions.

It’s reported that around one-third of eligible military-affiliated people in all categories of Stage 1 who have been offered the vaccine have declined it. Lt. Gen. Place said that of those he spoke with who chose to reject the vaccination, many “said they wanted to wait because they feel others are at greater risk for COVID than themselves.”

Across all of the U.S., over 80 million doses have been delivered. Of the DoD’s vaccine reserves, about 1.3 million doses, and 85% of available supply, have been administered in the military community worldwide. The number of vaccination sites have increased from 16 locations in late December, to 335 locations today.

Not all MTFs worldwide are administering at equal levels, however. Just last week, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) near Ramstein Air Base in Germany announced it will likely have to cancel vaccination appointments as current supplies are dwindling and new deliveries are expecting to be delayed. And with cases across Germany increasing exponentially, it leaves many wondering when their turn will come.

LRMC is the largest U.S. military hospital overseas and according to their Facebook page, they state that “the current demand for the COVID vaccine continues to outweigh the supply.” Other bases across Germany are reporting the same issues, many of whom have not left the 1A and 1B stages (health care workers, first responders, deploying troops, etc.) at their MTFs.  Regional Health Command Europe spokesman Gino Mattorano said, “We haven’t moved beyond (that), in most cases, because we haven’t received enough vaccines to be able to do that yet.” This information is in direct “contrast with commands in the U.S., the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, several of whom have recently received large vaccine shipments.” Based on this information, it is highly unlikely that military families in Europe will be receiving the vaccination by April.

Nonetheless, the federal government has moved to support the vaccination of military families by just recently passing the Saves Lives Act. This bill orders the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to provide vaccinations to any veteran, veteran spouse, or caregiver who wants one, regardless of whether they are enrolled in VA health care or not. Supporting Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. said, “Vaccines are our best shot at ending this pandemic,” and this bill would help to get more shots into more arms.

To date, there are a very low number of side effects when receiving the vaccine, and no known deaths. Both Lt. Gen. Place and Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the NIAID at the National Institutes of Health) say that getting COVID-19 holds more significant dangers than simply getting vaccinated, especially considering the known (and even unknown) long-term effects of the virus. The safety records of the vaccine is public information at www.cdc.gov and you can track the DoD’s response to the virus and support of getting vaccinated at www.defense.gov.

 

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Military Families Lose Almost $5,000 Per PCS Move

Cost for Military Families Each PCS Move is Nearly $5,000

Military.com reported that military families are losing an average of $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses each time they move, according to survey data just released by a national nonprofit organization.

Peak Moving Season Moved to Fall and Winter This Year

During normal times, the peak military moving season begins around May 15 and extends through August, but many people move in June and early July, putting a strain on the capacity of moving companies. Service officials are working now to identify their projections of moves for the rest of the year, Marsh said. “The demand will be significant, so I anticipate moves going well into fall and early winter.” It remains to be seen how many moves in the commercial sector will also be pushed back to fall and winter.

MFAN Recommendations

MFAN researchers recommend that military officials:

  • Provide more information to families about the actual cost of moving
  • Inform them on what they can do to prepare
  • Improve the reimbursement process
  • Compensate service members fairly for loss and damage

Pandemic Exacerbates Many Issues

And as U.S. Transportation Command shifts to putting the management of military moves into hands of a private company, officials should incorporate oversight, transparency and performance metrics that recognize families’ experiences during their moves, researchers said. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating many issues for military families, such as problems with food insecurity, debt, lack of adequate emergency savings, difficulty getting medical appointments, spouse employment, and isolation, said Shelley Kimball, MFAN’s senior director of research and program evaluation.

New Military Parent Concerns Surfaces in Survey

One issue that popped during this survey which hadn’t shown up in their previous seven years of research is military parents’ concerns that seeking mental health care for their children will affect that child’s ability to later enter military service, said Kimball. Military Times has reported that several military dependents are being booted out of basic training because of various notations in their minor dependent records. Often the parents themselves had no idea the notations were in their children’s records. But the notations were discovered because the dependent medical records were merged with their new military service record while they were in basic training.

Current Survey Results Show Majority Didn’t See a Change

An MFAN survey released in February 2019 was key in bringing to lawmakers’ attention the serious conditions of mold, vermin, water leaks and other problems in some privatized housing. But this current survey, conducted some nine months later to revisit the issues of privatized housing, as defense and service officials were digging in to the root problems of housing, found that of those living in privatized military housing, 72% said they hadn’t seen a change. Repairs were still needed, or they still felt they were being treated unfairly, and their concerns were not being heard. Another 19% said things were better, and 8% said things were worse. Those in the ranks of E1 to E3 reported the highest negative perceptions of the condition of their homes, with 36% describing their satisfaction with the condition of their home as being “very negative.”

It is too early to tell whether customer satisfaction surveys show that quality of moves in this slower period has improved, but there has been good anecdotal feedback from military families about their moves, Marsh said. In years past, some military families have had problems with poor service and damaged household goods, partly because the moving industry was overwhelmed by the crush of moves in the military and civilian sectors in the same time frame.

Texas to Be Focus of More Detailed Project

Meanwhile, at the direction of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, TRANSCOM has implemented safety measures designed to protect service members and their families who are moving during the coronavirus pandemic. The survey findings have also pointed MFAN researchers to launch a more detailed project focused on Texas, Razsadin said, starting in the fall.

The survey indicates that Texas military families need more support in some areas, like food insecurity, she said. Texas was the state with the highest frequency of food insecurity, according to survey findings. Food insecurity means that at some point during the year, a family does not know where the next meal will come from.

For more information PCS moves, visit the Official DOD Customer Moving Portal at the following link.

 

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VOC REHAB Mission Realigned By VA With Name Change

VA Realigns Mission of VR&E With New Name Change

A statement in early June from the Executive Director of Readiness and Employment Service, William Streitberger, read, “I am pleased to announce the renaming of our program, which became effective as of June 22, 2020. From that date forward, Vocational Rehabilitation (VOC REHAB) and Employment Service will become known as Veteran Readiness and Employment Service. We will continue to abbreviate our program as VR&E.” The new tagline for the program is: “Empower. Achieve. Succeed.”

VR&E is one of the oldest benefits for veterans providing assistance and services to help those who previously served gain civilian employment using a five-track system. Each track helps participants navigate the many aspects of finding and succeeding in a new career field.

5 Tracks of the VR&E Program Guidelines

The Five Tracks of the program follow these guidelines:

  1. Reemployment: to successfully return participants to a civilian job they previously held
  2. Rapid Access to Employment: to quickly secure employment with existing skills and experience
  3. Self-Employment: to plan for and start a business
  4. Employment through Long-Term Services: to obtain training and/or education, college or certification programs, on the job training, non-paid work experience, apprenticeships, and/or internships
  5. Independent Living: to become self-sufficient – if the participant can’t return to work right away

Characteristics of the Program

The official VA blog describes some of the characteristics of the program that participants will encounter, such as:

  • Exploring career goals and interests
  • Pursuing skilled professions or trades
  • Selecting and mapping personal goals for employment
  • Obtaining formal education or training where tuition, fees, books and supplies are provided at no cost
  • Maximizing independence in life’s daily activities

 

VA Set Out to Better Understand Programs Strengths and Weaknesses

It was identified that changes to the program were needed through “a comprehensive Human-Centered Design (HCD) research effort,” which helped the VA better understand the “program’s strengths, weaknesses, pain points, and opportunities to increase program awareness and enhance the delivery of VR&E services.”

This effort collected information from sessions with veterans, service members, VR&E employees, and veterans service officers, which revealed that the previous program name created confusion, a misunderstanding of the program’s services, and unknowingly cultivated a sense of stigma.

Research after the name change and program updates – specifically around identifying Chapter 31 as a career/employment program – indicates that greater awareness will mitigate confusion and increase participation.  “The new name puts an emphasis on the Veteran and the department’s mission to help them reach their employment goals,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

Physical Changes to the VR&E Program

A few of the physical changes to the program are:

  • Will accept a typed signature on all forms related to the VR&E program – previously would only accept “wet signature” forms; this should make it easier for veterans to receive their benefits more quickly
  • More electronic communication between participants and VR&E field staff; due to the pandemic, tele-counseling should be utilized to allow easier and quicker access for veterans
  • Has created a centralized mail intake point for all postal mail regarding the VR&E program to ensure “business as usual” during the pandemic. The address is:

Department of Veterans Affairs

Veteran Readiness and Employment Service (VR&E) Intake Center

PO Box 5210

Janesville, WI 53547-5210

Not the First Name Change for the Program

This program had a previous name change twenty years ago, from Vocational Rehabilitation and Counseling. And some feel that this name change – and the cost it may have carried – came at a poor time during this pandemic. Whatever the future may hold for VR&E, stakeholders and those who benefit from it hope that any additional transformations that may come will not change the good work the program is intended to do.

Learn more about VR&E and apply for assistance here.

 

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How Does VA Healthcare Compare to Non-VA Healthcare?

How the VA Compares to Non-VA Healthcare

Did you know that the VA is the largest healthcare provider in the US? In any health care system – especially one that serves millions of Veterans – ensuring timely access to high-quality healthcare services is extremely important.

The VA MISSION Act of 2018 improved access to healthcare services for Veterans meeting eligibility criteria. The VA determines who is eligible to receive healthcare at non-VA facilities based on specific criteria.

Recent research shows that VA healthcare is comparable to healthcare provided at non-VA hospitals. Considering how the VA compares to non-VA medical centers is important now that Veterans have more choices about where they receive medical care.

VA MISSION Act of 2018

Under Title I of the Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act of 2018, veterans are eligible to receive health care at non-VA medical facilities if they meet certain eligibility criteria.

Service Not Offered

Veterans are eligible to receive non-VA care if their VA does not offer a healthcare service that is medically required. For example, the VA does not provide maternity services. Any female Veteran in need of maternity care is eligible for community healthcare services because these services are not offered by any VA.

Living a Long Distance from VA Facility

Veterans living in a state or territory without a full-service VA are eligible for non-VA care. Such locations include:

  • Alaska
  • Hawaii
  • New Hampshire
  • Guam
  • American Samoa
  • The Northern Mariana Islands
  • S Virgin Islands

Veterans living a significant distance from a VA facility are also eligible for non-VA care. Note that the distance factors in traffic and is determined by the VA using a specific software program. Examples of scenarios where a Veteran qualifies under this rule include:

  • The Veteran was eligible under the 40-mile criterion of the Veteran Choice Act, continues to reside in a qualifying location under that act and resides in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Alaska, or Wyoming.
  • The average drive time to receive primary care or mental health care services exceeds 30 minutes.
  • The average drive time to receive specialty care exceeds 60 minutes.

Appointments Not Immediately Available

If the VA does not have an appointment for primary care or mental health within 20 days, the Veteran is eligible for community care. Veterans are eligible for community care if a specialty care – like cardiology or oncology – appointment is not available within 28 days.

Quality Standards Not Met

If the VA offers a particular medical service, but that service does not meet quality standards set by the VA, a Veteran is eligible to receive care at a non-VA hospital.

Fortunately, care provided at the VA is comparable and sometimes exceeds the care provided in non-VA healthcare facilities.

VA Surgical Care Outperforms Non-VA Surgical Care

A recent study published in the Journal of Surgical Research concluded that the surgical care provided by the VA was at least equivalent to non-VAs. Researchers compared 34 VA hospitals to 319 neighboring non-VA hospitals, looking at rates of post-surgery complications and patient satisfaction scores.

The rates of complications were lower at VA hospitals and patient satisfaction scores were comparable. The VA hospitals either matched or out-performed the non-VA hospitals in this study.

VA Care is Safe and Effective

Measuring safety in healthcare involves looking at rates of complication including complications after surgery and bed sores or pressure ulcers. Measuring effectiveness in healthcare involves looking at how well certain diseases are managed. For example, the number of people who receive cancer screening on time or how well diabetes is managed based on improvements in specific blood tests.

A review of the results of 69 studies published between 2005 and 2015 concluded that the VA generally provides safe and effective care in comparison to non-VA medical facilities.

The authors of this study note that the quality of VA health care has long been an area of concern. This concern led to the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which required assessment of the quality of VA health care. This legislation was then followed by the VA Mission Act of 2018.

The study also compared timeliness, efficiency, and patient-centeredness and concluded that more information is needed to assess these concepts.

Always Room for Improvement

Healthcare is continuously changing to improve the quality of its services. VA hospitals compete with neighboring community hospitals and continuously monitor the quality of their services in comparison.

One of the ways that hospitals measure quality is through patient satisfaction surveys. As healthcare continues to work toward improvement, it relies on information about the quality of their services that is provided by patients through these surveys.

Veterans should know that they may be eligible for non-VA care under the VA MISSION Act of 2018. They should understand that the VA provides healthcare services that are comparable to non-VA facilities and that patient satisfaction surveys are important communication tools for helping hospitals improve their services.

 

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VA Tackles Backlog of Claims Inventory

VA Tackles Backlog of Claims Inventory

In an August 13th press release, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has improved procedures by incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce the time it takes to process in-coming mail from ten days down to one day.

According to their statement, AI-infused software reads the mail document’s contents and automatically routes it to VA employees that are working the next step of the claims process. That means processing times are reduced because the information submitted by the Veteran to support their claim is reviewed faster.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie praised the automation, stating, “Moving past manual mail processes to automation puts the emphasis on Veterans. This new capability allows the VA to process Veterans’ claims quickly and efficiently.”

The VA receives more than 500,000 pieces of mail each month, most of them related to benefits and services. Those sending mail to the VA are often the Veterans themselves or surviving spouses, service agencies, attorneys and claims agents. Physically mailing documents is how claims are started and also how supporting documentation is submitted for potential monetary benefits.

VA Has Already Resumed In-Person Exams

On May 28th, just a short time after much of the country slowed due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the VA announced that it was resuming in-person Compensation and Pension (C&P) exams, but only in select locations across the country.

In order to resume these exams, COVID-19 safety measures like social distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment were implemented, allowing the VA to resume examinations and reduce the backlog of claims cases, which already averaged over 100,000 at any pre-pandemic point of time.

For any veterans outside of the coverage areas, listed here, claims services are available through telehealth appointments and a review of the “accepted clinical evidence process”, which reviews the existing medical records to provide information needed to complete the claim. This process is often helpful, but it does not eliminate the need for in-person examinations.

VA Historically Subcontracts Exams

During a July 6th interview on Federal Drive, a podcast of the Federal News Network, we learned that the Veterans Health Administration only conducted about 25% of the in-person C&P exams before the pandemic. David McLenachen, director of the Appeals Management Office at VBA, stated that contractors hired by the VBA conducted about 75% of these exams. These contractors are physicians and healthcare companies that manage hospitals who have subcontracted themselves with the VA in order to expand the coverage areas across the country. Many of us do not live near VA facilities, and often have to drive for hours to visit one.

Mr. McLenachen also reported that, as of early July, they were carrying a backlog of over 300,000 necessary exams, up from the usual 100,000. This despite the “tele-CMP” exams that have taken place during the pandemic, which offered an alternate mode of examination that would allow for the completion of some open cases.

Great Effort, Uncertainty Remains

It is still difficult to gauge the impact of the effectiveness of telehealth appointments on the claims process. The closest VA clinic to me is in Washington, D.C., and they are operating with extremely limited in-person appointments, preferring a heavy use of telehealth options. I’ve had numerous telehealth appointments in the past, and they are good for most applications and conditions. However, the claims that lead to compensatory benefits, especially initial claims, still require an in-person examination by the VA or one of its contractors.

All VA medical clinics follow the CDC’s guidance regarding COVID-19 measures to influence normal operations. Ensure that you check your clinic’s website before arriving for guidance on entry procedures. You can utilize their COVID-19 Fast Pass Pre-Screen to expedite your entry at many of the VA’s medical clinics.

With the infusion of AI into document screening, an earlier-than-expected start of in-person exams, and an army of subcontractors willing to perform them, the VA continues striving to support veterans by getting them the care and compensation they deserve.

(Image courtesy of Monika Wisniewska via www.123rf.com)

 

>> Are you a veteran?  Frustrated with your VA disability rating?  Register for a free consultation for help with increasing your rating to get the compensation you deserve.  Please go here.

 

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VA Moves Its Travel Reimbursement System Online with AccessVA

VA Moves Its Travel Reimbursement System Online with AccessVA

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is making it easier for veterans and eligible beneficiaries to submit travel claims for traveling to receive medical care.  AccessVA will be online filing system for travel reimbursement.

Currently, those seeking reimbursement for medical travel must file their travel claims using a paper form or through specially designated kiosks at VA medical centers.

After the online filing mode is made available the kiosks will be phased out. However hardcopy travel claims may still be used. However, beginning on July 13, the following locations will have online travel claim filing available.

Locations with Online Travel Claim Filing Available

  • Bay Pines
  • Houston
  • Kansas City
  • Minneapolis
  • Salt Lake City

By the end of November 2020, the VA electronic travel claim program should be available nationwide. Eligible veterans and beneficiaries will be able to visit VA’s Access VA website to file their claims. The new program will be known as the Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System or BTSSS. The program promises to speed payments and cut down on errors that occur when using paper travel claims.

 

“Streamlining the Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System will help our veterans get their travel reimbursements more securely and efficiently.”

– VA Secretary Robert Wilkie

What is AccessVA?

AccessVA improves online interaction with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for veterans, family members, service members, and business partners by providing a single-entry point for access to many VA websites and online applications.

It enables VA websites and online applications to accept a growing number of federal and commercially issued credentials (which meet US Government standards), without the need to create and manage multiple VA website specific credentials.

 

>> Are you a veteran?  Frustrated with your VA disability rating?  Register for a free consultation for help with increasing your rating to get the compensation you deserve.  Please go here.

 

AccessVA Offers More Options and Increased Convenienc

  • In the past, VA website or online applications required users to provide a username and password for use only on that site. This forced users to maintain many different usernames and passwords for multiple VA websites.
  • AccessVA allows users to login with Sign-In Partners they may already have such as DS Logon, CAC Card, VA PIV, and more.
  • Users who do not have one of the Sign-In Partners can register once and gain access to many VA websites, instead of registering for each website individually.
  • As AccessVA grows, users will have access to even more VA websites. It will also be able to accept more credentials allowing users to choose which is most convenient for them.

What’s in it for the Veterans?

The Department of Veterans Affairs exists to serve our Veterans. Veterans will realize substantial benefits by using AccessVA for online transactions including:

Secure and Easy Identity Validations

AccessVA provides a single identification credential and logon process that veterans can use for a number of federal information systems across participating agencies. Once an account is established, the veteran will be spared the burden of having to keep track of multiple sets of identification credentials.

Reduces the Wait for Service and Increases Public Trust

AccessVA provides improved customer service by enabling a more streamlined record keeping system that allows responsive and timely service for the Veteran while increasing the public’s confidence in online business transactions with the Federal Government by preventing potential fraud.

Saves Taxpayer Dollars

AccessVA promotes efficiencies and cost savings by establishing a unified authentication system that can be interoperable among various agencies that service our Veterans and citizens. By adopting a single system, we save taxpayer dollars.

 What does AccessVA do?

In the past, each web site or application you visited wanted to provide you with a username and password for use on that system only. This forced you to keep up with many different usernames and passwords for different web sites. In AccessVA, a username and password that is issued to you (one example of an online credential) will be used at multiple participating VA applications. As the AccessVA sign-in service grows, so will the number of VA applications that will accept your credential. One of the main goals is to simplify the process for users to do business with the VA online.

Do I need to be a veteran to use AccessVA?

You do not need to be a veteran to use AccessVA.  AccessVA is intended for veterans, family members, services members, and VA business partners.

Each AccessVA enabled website offers different services and may have different access requirements. If any additional requirements are required to access an AccessVA enabled website additional information will be made available on that website.

Some AccessVA Sign-In Partners also have requirements. For example, to acquire AccessVA’s most popular credential, DS Logon, you need to be one of the following:

  • Veteran
  • Service member
  • Eligible dependent

Furthermore, you need to be registered in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS).  Most Veterans are already enrolled in the DEERS system.  Spouses and dependents are also often already enrolled.

The type of VA application you are attempting to sign-in to will determine whether one of the AccessVA credential providers available to non-veterans will be accepted.

“VA is working diligently to find new ways to innovate and simplify how we serve Veterans and their beneficiaries,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Streamlining the Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System will help our Veterans get their travel reimbursements more securely and efficiently.”

For more information, visit the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs at this link.

 

>> Are you a veteran?  Frustrated with your VA disability rating?  Register for a free consultation for help with increasing your rating to get the compensation you deserve.  Please go here.

 

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New DoD ID for Families and Retirees

New DoD ID for Families and Retirees

Beginning on July 31, 2020, the Department of Defense (DoD) began issuing a new form of ID for family members and military retirees.  These cards are used to access service benefits and privileges.

This begins the transition away from the paper-based ID card.  These new cards will be more secure.  They will be similar to the Common Access Card (CAC) issued to active military, Selected Reserve, and Defense civilian employees.

The “Next Generation Uniformed Services ID (USID) Card”

The new ID, called the Next Generation Uniformed Services ID (USID) card, was first issued at select DoD ID facilities this past July, with a phased plan of implementation to ALL DoD ID card facilities expected by December 2020.

The USID will be issued to retired and reserve members, dependent family members of Uniformed Services personnel, and other eligible individuals “in accordance with DoD policy to facilitate access to benefits, privileges, and DoD bases”, the DoD remarked in an online statement.

Your current ID card will remain valid through its expiration date.  There’s no need to worry about losing access to your local base. In fact, the DoD made it clear that, in order to reduce the impact on ID card issuance facilities, cards will not be reissued solely for the purpose of obtaining the Next Generation USID card. If you, like me, have an indefinite (INDEF) expiration date on your current ID card, the DoD is advising that you wait until the summer of 2021 before attempting to obtain a Next Generation USID.

Most facilities do not have the capability to issue the new ID card at this time.  They still need to upgrade their equipment and ensure their personnel are properly trained on the new card’s issuance. The pandemic has not made this roll-out any easier as many facilities have limited their operations out of safety concerns.

Where Can You Get a New ID Card?

Since the new ID is not yet widely available, contact your nearest ID card issuance facility, or use their Site Locator and Appointment Scheduler online at: https://idco.dmdc.osd.mil/idco/. There are over 1,500 facilities that issue ID cards today.  By December 2020 all of them are expected to have the new card available.

ID Card Requirements

The only thing changing is the ID card, so two forms of ID will still be required. You can access the List of Acceptable Identity Documents to ensure you have what you need beforehand. One of your IDs must be an unexpired federal- or state-issued photo ID.

Still Have Questions?

If you still have questions and concerns regarding the issuance of the Next Generation USID, check out the FAQ section on the DoD’s CAC website.

If the FAQ section does not answer your question, contact the CAC directly: DoD Common Access Card > Contact.

(Image courtesy of Hongqi Zhang via www.123rf.com)

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SEALs Swim for Charity

SEALs Swim for Charity

On August 8th of this year, a team of 72 U.S. Navy SEALs, several veterans, and military supporters from all over the United States came together for the second year in a row to swim across the Hudson River to raise funds for the GI Go Fund organization. Although the current total raised this year has yet to be released, all those involved sought to duplicate or exceed the $200,000 that was raised with last year’s event.

With security and assistance from NYPD, FDNY, U.S. Coast Guard, Port Authority, and the New York district U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, “this is the only legally sanctioned swim across the Hudson River and one of the first events in the New York/New Jersey area since the COVID 19 outbreak began.”

The participants’ route took them by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where they stopped to perform 100 push ups to represent America’s liberties and 22 pull ups to recognize the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day. The event ended in lower Manhattan in honor of the victims of 9/11. One former Navy SEAL said of the event, “It’s a huge honor to be here with my friends and brothers and just doing it for an amazing cause – it’s bigger than us.”

GI Go Fund is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 2006 in memory of Lt. Seth Dvorin who was killed while serving in Iraq. Its mission is to “assist veterans, active-duty personnel, their family members, veteran supporters, and all members of the military community with finding employment, connecting their benefits, and accessing housing opportunities.”

Since its inception, the organization has helped tens of thousands of veterans with such things as homelessness, legal assistance, financial aid, and developing small businesses. They are continuing to create innovative programs in a number of other areas with help from big name companies like Verizon, Panasonic, Prudential, BCB Bank, and many more.

The funds raised in this year’s Navy SEAL Swim and Run had three main efforts:

  • COVID 19 Pandemic: Alongside doctors and nurses, brave military personnel, veterans called back to service, and first responders have been serving as well. While they have been supporting a number of operations (like setting up field hospitals, serving in extended duties, delivering food and supplies to those in need, and much more), they have also been directly affected by the coronavirus. Funds will go to assist those who lost their lives to the virus and their family members.
  • Ending veteran homelessness: With over 67,000 homeless veterans across the United States, and over 1200 in New York/New Jersey alone, in the coming months even more are expected to face the same devastating circumstances due to the Pandemic. GI Go Fund aims to support those veterans during these difficult times.
  • Job training and entrepreneurial support: In conjunction with GI Go Fund’s Incubator – the first and only New Jersey veteran small-business entrepreneur space – funds will go to support the incredible space and state-of-the-art technology located there. Ensuring monetary support of the Veteran Incubator allows the organization to continue providing services and materials for those seeking employment in the aftermath of the pandemic.

 

Of the event, one GI Go Fund coordinator said, “I just want to say that the Navy SEAL swim, I believe, is one of the most epic events that this area has seen… and that’s saying a lot.”

If you’re interested in making a contribution to the cause, there is a “Make a Donation” link on GI Go Fund’s site.

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Data Breach at the VA: What We Know

On September 14th, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Management announced a data breach involving the personal information of approximately 46,000 Veterans.

Here’s What We Know

The VA’s Financial Services Center (FSC) determined that one of its online applications was accessed by unauthorized users to divert payments to community health care providers for the medical treatment of Veterans. Their initial review indicates that the unauthorized users gained access to the application, changed financial information, and then used social engineering techniques to exploit authentication protocols.

FSC Takes Action

The FSC took the application offline and immediately reported the breach to the VA’s Privacy Office. To prevent any further unauthorized access, all access to the application has been disabled until a comprehensive security review is completed by the VA Office of Information Technology.

The FSC is alerting the affected veterans and their family members of the potential risk posed to their personal information. The VA also announced that it is offering access to credit monitoring services at no cost to those whose social security numbers may have been compromised.

Veterans who receive a letter indicating that their information may have been breached are advised to follow the instructions in the letter to protect their data. If you do not receive a letter from the VA about this issue, then your information has likely not been compromised.

Any of you who do receive a letter can direct specific questions to the FSC Customer Help Desk:

  • Via Email: VAFSCVeteransSupport@va.gov
  • Postal mail: VA FSC Help Desk, Attn: Customer Engagement Center, P.O. Box 149971, Austin, TX 78714-9971

Protect Yourself and Your Data

The compromised application has remained unnamed and a timeline for the breach has not been provided. Remain vigilant and keep an eye on your data. If something seems off, a good first move is changing your passwords on any and all VA related accounts.

Finally, the FSC indicated that social engineering was involved in the breach. That means that the unauthorized users exploited what little information they may have had and used it to extract more information until they could put all the puzzle pieces together and replicate your identity.

When it comes to protecting your personal information, never give away information over the phone. Legitimate contact from government agencies will happen through the mail, just like the IRS will not call you and ask you to buy iTunes gift cards. Always be suspicious of phone calls from people telling you they’re from the government.

I sure hope I don’t get a letter in the mail!  But again, if you do, please direct specific questions to the FSC Customer Help Desk:

  • Via Email: VAFSCVeteransSupport@va.gov
  • Postal mail: VA FSC Help Desk, Attn: Customer Engagement Center, P.O. Box 149971, Austin, TX 78714-9971

(Image courtesy of Sergey Nivens via www.123rf.com)

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Military Impact of Payroll Tax Deferral

Payroll Tax Deferral Impact on The Military

President Trump signed a memo last month directing the Treasury Department to allow employers to defer payment of employee-side Social Security payroll taxes, to provide relief to workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Under IRS guidance implementing the order, employers can cease withholding the 6.2% Social Security tax from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31 for workers who make less than $4,000 biweekly, and then recoup the money by increasing the amount withheld from workers’ paychecks in the first few months of next year.

As a result of this, many concerns and questions have been on the forefront of Service Member’s minds. Below are some frequently asked questions and answers associated with this deferral implementation.

Why are my Social Security taxes being deferred?

In order to provide relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Presidential Memorandum was issued on August 8, 2020, and guidance followed by Internal Revenue Service on August 28, 2020, to temporarily defer service members Social Security (Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI)), as seen on the Army, Air Force, and Navy Service Members Leave and Earnings Statement as “FICA-SOC SECURITY”) tax withholdings. The Social Security tax is labeled as “Social Security” on the LES for the Marine Corps.

What is the Social Security tax?

Social Security tax is also called the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) tax and is required by law. The tax funds the Social Security program, which is administered by the Social Security Administration.

Can I opt-out of the deferred Social Security tax withholding?

Military members will be subject to President Trump’s payroll tax deferral and will not be able to opt out of it, the payroll services provider for the Department of Defense said over the weekend.

“Military members are not eligible to opt-out of the deferral if their Social Security wages fall within the stated limits,” the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) said on its website. “The deferral will happen automatically.”

Does this affect any of my other tax withholdings?

No. Pursuant to the Department of Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service Guidance, this only affects your Social Security tax withholdings, which will be deferred from September 2020 through the end of the calendar year 2020.

Department of Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service guidance link:

https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-20-65.pdf

What is the wage limit amount for determining who will have their Social Security tax withholdings deferred through the end of calendar year 2020?

If your monthly rate of basic pay is less than $8,666.66, your Social Security taxes will be deferred.  If your monthly rate of basic pay is at or above the threshold, your social security tax withholding will not be affected by this temporary deferral.  The monthly rate of $8,666.66 is determined as: The IRS rate of $4,000 is based on a bi-weekly pay schedule (26 pay periods), while your military pay is calculated on a monthly pay schedule (12 months).  To convert the bi-weekly rate of $4,000 to monthly, multiply $4,000 X 26 (pay periods) = $104,000 and divide by 12 (months), which will equal $8,666.66 for the monthly rate.

What grades are impacted?

Enlisted service members will have their Social Security taxes deferred. Officers at the grade O1-O4, the grade of O5 with less than 16 years of service, and the grade of O6 with less than 14 years of service will have their Social Security taxes deferred. All officers at the grade of 05 with 16 or more years of service, grade of O6 with 14 or more years of service, and all O7s through O10s will not have their Social Security taxes deferred.  All warrant officers will have their Social Security taxes deferred except those at a grade of W5 with 24 or more years of service.

RELATED: Projected Military Pay 2021 and NDAA Latest

Will I be required to pay back the Social Security taxes that are deferred?

Yes. Current IRS guidance indicates the payment of the deferred taxes is postponed until January 1, 2021. The deferred Social Security taxes not withheld from wages during 2020 will be collected from your wages between January 1, 2021, and April 30, 2021. Additional information on the collection process will be provided in the future.

How much will my payroll provider collect during each pay period starting January 1, 2021 through April 30, 2021?

As more information becomes available on the collection of the deferred Social Security taxes, it will be posted here.

Is my military retirement pay impacted by the Social Security tax deferral?

No.  Service members pay social security tax on earned income.  Since military retirement pay is a pension and not considered earned income, it is not affected by the deferral.

How will the deferral process work for Reserve and National Guard members?

Due to differences in pay systems, application of the tax deferral process will be different for most members of the Reserves and National Guard in the Army, Air Force, or Navy.  For these members, if they are eligible for the tax deferral (per the wage threshold), their initial net pay will

not have the Social Security taxes deferred. The deferral will be processed in a separate pay transaction, occurring two to three business days later to refund the Social Security taxes; resulting in an additional Leave and Earnings Statement in MyPay with an entry labeled “FICA Refund” reflecting the refunded Social Security tax amount.

Additional tax relief related to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found on IRS.gov. Service members and families can contact Financial Readiness staff at their installation Military and Family Support Center, or Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647, if they need assistance in reviewing their Leave and Earnings Statements (LES) or have questions in planning for changes to their net take home pay.

For more information, service members may view the Defense Finance and Accounting Service page, https://www.dfas.mil/taxes/Social-Security-Deferral/ and a list of Frequently Asked Questions, here. As more information is determined, updates will be posted on the site. For more information on financial readiness, visit www.finred.usalearning.gov or www.milspousemoneymission.org.

 

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New App Provides Info on Installations for Army

Hot, New App Connects Military Community to Info on Army Garrisons

According to a Military Times article, the Digital Garrison app is connecting those who live near Army installations with information about a variety of programs, services, and offices on the installation.  Defense officials have emphasized that family support programs — and childcare in particular — are critical to keeping the force free of stress and focused on their missions. Readiness is a three-legged stool,” said Ronald Green, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. “We have unit readiness … I have family readiness, and I have personal readiness. And every warrior tries to balance that same stool.

About Digital Garrison

“Digital Garrison is a partnership between Army Installation Management Command and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. It connects those eligible to use installation services with information about those services, ranging from childcare to fitness and recreation options, to privatized housing offices and medical facilities. The United States Army Installation Management Command (IMCOM) is a support formation of the United States Army responsible for the day-to-day management of Army installations around the globe. Army garrisons are communities that provide many of the same types of services expected from any small city. The Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES, also referred to as The Exchange) is the retailer on U.S. Army and Air Force installations worldwide. The Exchange is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and its director/chief executive officer is Tom Shull. The oldest and the largest of the Department of Defense’s exchange services.

AAFES officials are in the process of talking to Air Force officials about a similar app for their installations, said Karen Cardin, AAFES’ senior vice president of customer experience.

New App Addresses Issues with Previous Similar Offerings

While some Army garrisons had developed their own apps in the past, they were inconsistent in cost, security levels and their ability to update information, said Scott Malcom, spokesman for Army Installation Management Command. By working with AAFES, officials have ensured the app is compliant with the Federal Information Security Management Act, which drives DoD and the Army cybersecurity rules and policies, he said. AAFES has long provided a secure online shopping portal and operates the Exchange Credit Program’s Military Star card for all the exchanges and the commissary system.

Not All Army Installations Are Included

Currently 62 Army installations participate out of the 75 active Army installations that IMCOM manages, including some overseas. Some others do not currently participate for various reasons, but may be brought on later, Malcom said. Army garrisons that are part of some joint bases that are under the jurisdiction of another military branch, such as Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which is run by the Air Force, do not participate in the app.

Push Notifications and Auto-updating

Those using the app can customize it to their installation and can sign up for push notifications from the installation officials for important information such as inclement weather or active shooters, for example. If you move or travel to a different location, you just change the location. It will have the same look and feel in the app, said Malcom. The app is designed to make interactions easier for newcomers coming into the installation. It is directly, securely tied in with installations’ web sites, so that when information is updated on the sites, it is automatically available on the app, officials said.

There are some things notably missing, however, like commissaries. And there are not any plans to include private enterprises such as banks and credit unions into the app, said Malcom.

The Defense Commissary Agency is a separate entity, and those responsible for the app are working with commissary officials to introduce some basic capabilities to the app later this month or early in September, said Malcom. Digital Garrison will link to the local garrison flyer for commissary sales and promotions, and link to the Click2Go website, if that service is available at their commissary. Click2Go enables customers to order groceries online and pick them up curbside, and is currently available at six installations, including three Army installations in Virginia — Fort Lee, Fort Eustis, and Fort Belvoir.

It is a work in progress. In some cases, it is not clear where certain offices are, such as the household goods office. Malcom said officials are working to refine some categories. While information isn’t currently available on the app about whether the particular recreation option is open to these shoppers, they can call the number to find out.

Last summer, there were separate efforts to develop apps for information on installations, Malcom said, until AAFES and IMCOM joined efforts. But if they had stayed on those separate tracks, he said, “someone coming on base would have had to use three different apps” to accomplish the same task.

 

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Watchdog Reports Troops May Not Be Receiving Adequate Health Care

Watchdog Reports: Troops and Families May Not Be Receiving Adequate Mental Health Care

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, military families were having trouble getting the mental health care they needed, according to new data from an online survey conducted in late 2019. Whether they are active-duty families, military retiree families or veteran families, about half reported they were satisfied with their ability to get mental health appointments, according to the Military Family Advisory Network’s family support programming survey. The survey was open online from Oct. 7 to Nov. 11, and 7,785 people participated. About 42 percent of those were active-duty members and spouses. Most respondents — 83 percent — said they had not used mental health crisis resources; those who had used such resources were more likely to be spouses of veterans or retirees. Of the 7,785 people who participated, about 4,000 answered health questions when they were directed based on earlier answers, and even fewer answer the mental health questions.

According to an article by Militarytimes.com, thousands of troops and their family members may not be getting the mental health care they need because of a variety of issues with the Defense Department health care system, according to a new report from DoD auditors. Auditors with the DoD Inspector General found that DoD is not consistently meeting the requirements under law and by DoD policy, for access to outpatient mental health care, causing patients to experience delays. Generally, the wait time for an urgent care visit must not exceed 24 hours; a routine visit must not exceed one week, and a specialty care referral must not exceed four weeks.  Auditors also found that — pre-COVID-19 — 53 percent of all active duty service members and their families who got referrals to TRICARE because they needed mental health care did not receive the care. It is not known why, because health officials do not track the reasons. That represented an average of 4,415 out of 8,328 per month at those 13 MTFs who did not receive that care.

At one military treatment facility, a psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent care gave auditors three examples of how delayed treatment may have contributed to patient safety issues, including second suicide attempts, and hospitalization. Another mental health provider said it could take up to seven weeks for a follow-up visit and the clinic is not tracking how well they can treat a patient once the patient is in the clinic. Nine of the 13 MTFs reported they were not able to meet evidence-based treatment guidelines or monitor treatment dosage for patients.

Auditors found that seven of those 13 military treatment facilities or their supporting TRICARE networks did not meet the access standards for special mental health care each month.

“Our survey, which was fielded before COVID-19, found that military families experienced difficulty scheduling mental health care appointments,” said MFAN’s Executive Director Shannon Razsadin. “That’s something we never want to hear, and we are concerned about the additional barriers caused by COVID-19.”

Top obstacles for getting mental health care for currently serving families were lack of available appointments, time to attend appointments and concerns about negative career implications, according to the survey. The report, which adds statistics to back up what military families have long known, recommends exploring telehealth as an option for providing more access to mental health care. Another reason for problems with access to care was inadequate staffing. In interviews during site visits to the 13 MTFs, staff members at 11 of the MTFs said they would need more staff to meet standards for access to mental health care, or to care for both active duty members and their families. The Military Health System does not have a system-wide model to identify the appropriate levels of staffing needed in MTFs and in Tricare, auditors found. The auditors recommended that health officials develop a single system-wide staffing approach for the behavioral health system of care, that estimates the number of appointments and number of personnel needed.

As recommended by IG auditors, DHA will establish a standard process for mental health assessments, but the elements of that assessment will be tailored to each patient’s needs, officials stated in their response. Some MTF providers told auditors they were concerned with the adequacy of the Tricare network in their area, in terms of enough mental health care providers, which has long been a concern of Tricare beneficiaries.

During the pandemic, telehealth through Tricare has indeed increased. Tricare has covered telehealth for several years for certain medically necessary services. Most of the families who participated in the survey had never used telehealth, but the good news, Razsadin said, is that more than one-third of the active-duty families said they would be likely or very likely to use it. Tricare officials have already taken steps to make it easier to use telehealth, such as temporarily waiving cost-shares and co-payments for all covered, in-network telehealth services during the pandemic. They have temporarily relaxed some licensing requirements across state lines to allow providers to treat patients who live in a different state. There has long been a shortage of mental health providers across the country. Tricare officials have temporarily expanded some types of care eligible through telehealth and allow coverage for telehealth consultations by telephone. Officials have said they will evaluate whether to make some of the expansions permanent.

That may be an example of a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Razsadin. “It’s given us an opportunity to get more flexible in how we provide different types of support. I think this is an eye-opening experience… This is an opportunity to also look at what works and what could work longer term as we support military families.

 

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Veteran Suicide Prevention Legislation Passes House

A Meaningful Step Toward Veteran Suicide Prevention

LATEST: As of Wednesday, September 24th, this bill has passed the House and is now being sent to the White House, where it is expected to be signed by President Trump.

Suicides in the U.S. continue to rise at an alarming rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate in the U.S. has climbed 35% since 1999. While this statistic is alarming in its own right, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that (after adjusting the numbers for age and gender), veterans are committing suicide at a rate of about 1.5 times that of the general population.

A survey of members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), taken last December and January reported that 44% admitted to having thoughts about suicide since joining the military, and 62% reported knowing a veteran who died by suicide.

Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act

Though an estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day, according to U.S. Senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Mark Warner (D-VA), studies show that typically only six of that 20 had been receiving healthcare services at the VA during the time leading up to their death.

For many years, VA resources have been stretched thin, resulting in long wait times and access bottlenecks. According to one 2018 evaluation conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, more than half of VA facilities were “below or far below the benchmark” for timely access to mental healthcare.

That’s why senators Boozman and Warner have proposed the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act.

The Bill Has Passed Both the Senate and the House of Representatives

On August 5th, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed that landmark legislation.  The legislation is named to honor the legacy of retired Navy SEAL Commander John Scott Hannon.  He served for 23 years and died by suicide in February of 2018, after a courageous battle against post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and bipolar disorder.

The bill, as of September 23, 2020, has now passed the House of Representatives.  It will now be sent to the White House, where President Trump is expected to sign it.

The Bill Aims to Enhance Coordination and Planning to Prevent Suicides

The bill is focused on efforts to prevent veteran suicides and improve mental health outcomes through improved access to care, better diagnostic tools, and increased oversight of VA programs. The bill includes provisions from the IMPROVE Well-being for Veterans Act which was introduced in June 2019.

Its aim is to enhance coordination and planning of veteran mental health and suicide prevention services, and better measure the effectiveness of those programs. The bill would significantly expand mental health access and reach more veterans in high-need geographic areas by awarding three-year grants to organizations that have a proven track record in suicide prevention. It would also include increased access to telehealth services in underserved areas.

Bringing outside organizations into the fold and sharing information and resources with the common goal of savings lives would significantly expand mental health access, better-leverage existing community resources, and reach more veterans in high-need geographic areas. In addition to expanding  access, this strategy would cut down on wait times for its mental healthcare patients.

The Bill’s Objectives and Services

In simple terms, the broad objectives of this bill are:

  • To enable the VA to directly or indirectly reach more veterans than it currently does.
  • To increase coordination among currently disparate community resources which play a part in reducing suicide
  • To create and inspire broad adoption of a measurement tool that will indicate effectiveness of services provided for veterans suicide prevention.

Services would include, but not be limited to:

  • Mental health consultations
  • Medication management
  • Therapy
  • Employment and job training resources

President Trump is supportive of the solution outlined in the IMPROVE Well-being for Veterans Act and included the approach in the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) which was rolled out at the White House earlier this summer.  Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) were the original cosponsors of the legislation.

 

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Largest VA Budget Proposal Passes House

Largest VA Budget Proposal Passes House

On July 24th, legislation providing appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs (HR 7608) passed the House with a contentious vote of 224 in favor and 189 opposed to the legislation. What is remarkable about this bill is that it was only introduced 11 days before it was approved, which does not happen often. The bill has been forwarded to the Senate, and as of July 30th was referred to the Committee on Appropriations.

What’s in the VA Appropriations Bill?

  • $4.91 billion for Information Technology Systems
  • $2.81 billion for VA Compensations and Pensions
  • $2.62 billion to continue upgrades of the Veterans Electronic Health Record system
  • $1.38 billion for Medical Community Care
  • $2.15 million for Veterans Insurance and Indemnities
  • $840 million for Medical and Prosthetic Research
  • $355.9 million for General Administration, which could be transferred to “General Operating Expenses”
  • $349 million for the National Cemetery Association
  • $228 million for the Office of the Inspector General, up $1.3 million
  • $198 million to the Board of Veterans Appeals
  • $84.1 million for the American Battle Monuments Commission
  • $81.8 million for Arlington National Cemetery
  • $73.1 million for the Armed Forces Retirement Home
  • $1.18 million for the Native American Veteran Housing Loan Program

 

These are most of the proposed budgetary measures in HR 7608 that pertain to the VA. If enacted, these measures would go into effect for the next fiscal year starting on October 1st, 2020.

In addition, the bill includes numerous proposals related to military construction and family housing construction for each of the armed forces. That money should translate into improvements for housing on military installations across the country and around the world. 

A Contentious Bill

Of the 189 in opposition to this bill, 181 of them were Republicans. Seven Democrats also stood in opposition to HR 7608, of those being Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Omar (D-MN). 

Representative Kay Granger (R-KY) primarily opposes the legislation because it exceeds the spending level Congress and the President agreed upon last year. In her statement on the House floor, Granger said, that “[p]rovisions are included that would permanently prevent any administration from implementing reforms to programs that help lift needy Americans out of poverty.” 

She also argued against the procedure for pushing last minute additions that were not brought to the floor for debate: “Even though the Appropriations Committee has held more than 100 hearings and briefings this year, these proposals were never formally considered, and there were no discussions with Members on our side of the aisle.”

Other reasons for Rep. Granger’s opposition includes measure of the bill that reduce America’s energy independence, United Nations funding, and using American tax dollars to fund overseas abortions.

Representative Roe (R-TN) also stood in opposition to the bill, also for its irresponsible approach to federal spending and approved caps.

“This package is also loaded with wildly reckless spending, including labelling $37.5 billion as ‘emergency spending’ to skirt the budget caps signed into law last year,” he declared the day following its approval. “This appropriations package was loaded with partisan poison pills, leaving me with no choice but to strongly oppose it.”

The legislation is unlikely to succeed in the Senate, since Republicans largely oppose the extra measures that have little to do with supporting veterans. There are other related bills on the calendar, all of which were added around the same time as HR 7608. 

Let’s hope our congressional leaders can come together and debate these issues and come to some agreement. 

(Image courtesy of Mehmet Doganay via 123rf.com)

 

 

Resources for Voting OCONUS

OCONUS Voting: Resources and “How To”

Americans living overseas became eligible to vote years after women and minorities in the United States. Following a successful “teabag campaign” by members of the Association of American Residents Overseas, legislation was passed in 1976 allowing Americans living overseas to vote.

Overseas voters – many of whom are military connected – represent 3% of the total vote. It’s no surprise that voting while stationed overseas is a bit more challenging than while living in the US. This article outlines legislation that attempts to eliminate barriers and resources for overseas voters.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986

This act protects the rights of active duty military members stationed overseas by requiring states to allow them to vote absentee in federal elections.

The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) of 2009

This amendment to the UOCAVA of 1986 requires states to transmit ballots to overseas voters with enough time to vote in federal elections. This amendment has improved some obstacles to overseas voting and significantly increased the number of military and overseas voter ballots that are cast and counted in federal elections.

Still Progress to be Made

While the voting experience for overseas military members has improved, there is still progress to be made. In response to UOCAVA of 1986, the Department of Defense created The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). It provides “voting assistance for Service members, their families and overseas citizens.” If you are a service member, spouse, or dependent and eligible to vote, you should be familiar with the Federal Post Card Application available through this program.

Electronic Ballot Submission. States are increasingly allowing electronic ballot submission for military and overseas voters – but 19 states require ballots to be returned by mail.

Online Portals. States are exploring and developing online portals – but again, the majority of ballots are returned by mail.

Digital Signatures. Many states accept digital signatures – Common Access Card (CAC) signatures in some states – but nearly half of states do not allow electronic signatures for voter registration or requesting an absentee ballot.

How to Vote OCONUS

There is a looming acuity to reforming voting procedures in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. For service members and their families living OCONUS, it is important to know the steps to take and resources available for successfully casting your vote.

Step 1 – Register and Request an Absentee Ballot

Filling out the Federal Post Card Application allows you to simultaneously register to vote and request an absentee ballot.

  • Your address is usually the last place you lived before moving overseas
  • Military spouses can use the same residence as their service member under the Military Spouse Residency Relief Act.
  • To vote in the General Election on November 3, 2020, ballots should be sent by August 1, 2020.

Step 2 – Vote

When your ballot arrives, complete and return it. If it does not arrive in time, use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) as a backup ballot.

  • The recommended deadline for overseas voters is October 13, 2020.

To find your election office, check the status of your Federal Post Card Application, or status of your ballot, use the FVAP interactive map.

How To Vote OCONUS as a Service Member

Voting OCONUS as a military service member

Additional Resources for OCONUS Voters

All branches have voting assistance officers to support servicemembers execute their right to vote. Voters living overseas also have the following resources.

Overseas Vote Initiative – The US Vote Foundation

This Delaware-based non-profit, nonpartisan public charity is on a mission to make it easier for all Americans to engage in election processes. Setting up a Voter Account allows you to stay informed, research elected officials, locate local election office contact information and register to vote by absentee ballot.

Association of Americans Resident Overseas

Headquartered in Paris, this nonpartisan association researches issues that affect the lives of overseas Americans – including absentee voting – and advocates for US citizens. They participate in the annual Overseas Americans Week to ensure that Congress is aware of the experiences of Americans abroad.

Republicans Overseas

This organization strives to keep Americans overseas well-informed and serves as a direct link between overseas Americans and political leaders regarding policy concerns.

Democrats Abroad

This organization strives to mobilize the overseas vote and serve as a Democratic voice for Americans abroad. They provide an online voter registration tool for overseas voters to request an absentee ballot.

American Citizens Abroad

This non-profit organization advocates for Americans who may be ineligible to vote from overseas. Examples include adult children of US citizens who have never resided in the united states. Additionally, this organization has designed a Voters Bill of Rights for overseas voters and sits on the Advisory Board of the US Vote Foundation.

 

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Dogs and Vets: Helping Veterans with PTSD

The PAWS Veterans Therapy Act Would Provide Dogs to Veterans with PTSD

Many service members have been diagnosed with PTSD during their time in service. These veterans are able to get treatment, but what about using a service dog? Can these animals really help veterans get better? The answer is yes, and because of this, the PAWS Veterans Therapy Act has been passed by Congress, awaiting signature by President Biden.

The bill was introduced to the House in March of 2021.  It passed the House in May. On August 6, 2021, the bill was passed by the Senate.

What is the PAWS Veterans Therapy Act?

PAWS (the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) for Veterans Therapy Act, implements a new program to provide service dogs to eligible veterans diagnosed with PTSD.  The bill will require the Department of Veteran Affairs to implement a 5-year pilot program to provide canine training to eligible veterans.

Veterans will need to be enrolled in the VA health care system and be recommended for participation by a qualified medical health provider or clinical team. 

In addition, this bill also authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide service dogs to veterans with mental illness who do not have mobility impairments. 

History of the PAWS Act

Previously the VA only covered service dog costs for veterans with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments.  Legislators had been trying to change this by passing this bill since 2009

In January 2009, Senator Al Franken introduced a bill requiring the VA to do a 3-year pilot study on the benefits and feasibility of service dogs for PTSD and other disabilities. In 2010 the bill funding the study was passed and incorporated into the defense budget.  At this time, Congress ordered the VA to study what impact service dogs have on veterans who have PTSD.

The PAWS Study

Study Got Off to a Rocky Start

The VA began the study, but had partnered with contractors who did not perform proper screening of their dogs. About 25% of the dogs were found to have hip dysplasia, two dogs bit children, and two others had medical problems (health problems and aggressiveness are two major problems that cannot be present in a service dog).  Contractors also discouraged those participating in the program from reporting problems with their dogs, causing the study to be even more inaccurate.

In 2012, the VA suspended the study while they restructured and hired new contractors and trainers.

Over 10 Years of Frustration with Study

Some legislators had expressed frustration at the length of time it took for the VA to incorporate service dogs as a part of mental health treatment for veterans. Representative Jim McGovern, D-MA., reported that he has been trying to work with the VA on this for years, but has been repeatedly told that they are “looking into it.” McGovern even admitted, “I haven’t checked in this year (this was in 2019) with VA folks, because I’ve just kind of given up on them.”

VA Previously Expressed Science Lacking to Support that Service Dogs Help

The VA had expressed resistance to providing service dogs for veterans with mental health issues. Dr. Michael Fallon, the VA’s chief veterinarian, gave an interview with National Public Radio in 2017 where he stated, “I would say there are a lot of heartwarming stories that service dogs help, but scientific basis for that claim is lacking.” Per the New York Times, other VA officials have said that “the bill could ‘result in unintended and negative consequences’ for veterans entrusting their well-being to ‘this unsubstantiated treatment regime’.”

Other Studies Showed Otherwise

While the VA attempted to complete their study that began in 2012, other studies since had shown that veterans do benefit from service dogs.

In 2014, Kaiser Permanente conducted a study with 75 veterans, with results showing a reduction in PTSD/depression symptoms and in substance abuse, and an improvement in interpersonal relationships.

In 2018, Purdue University conducted their own study with 73 veterans, and found that those using service dogs produced a higher level of cortisol production, a hormone involved in processing stress. Participants also had an average of a 12-point reduction on the VA’s PTSD symptom checklist. Purdue is currently conducting a three-year study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to further evaluate the long-term effects service dogs may have on veterans.

Service Dogs From Non-Profits Can Be Costly

While veterans can obtain a service dog from non-profit organizations, the cost could range from $15,000-$30,000, and waiting lists could be a year or longer. There are also costs associated with owning a service dog, such as veterinary fees and food. These costs make it difficult or deter many veterans from getting a service dog. With almost 20% of post-9/11 veterans suffering from PTSD and about 20 veterans a day committing suicide, legislators and other supporters of the PAWS Act, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, continue to push for the passage of the bill.

Although time and labor intensive, anyone with a disability according to the ADA, physical or mental, can train their own service dog. A good overview and guide for owner-training a service dog can be found here.

Results of the Study

According to Military.com, veterans were paired with both service dogs and emotional support dogs for an 18-month period. The results found that there was a 3.7 point drop in the PTSD symptoms score with those who had a service dog. They also found that there were declines in suicidality and anger with the service dogs. 

This study shows that there are some big benefits to pairing veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD with service dogs. 

According to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the average number of veteran suicides per day was 17.6 in 2018. The PAWS Act could help with the rate of veteran suicides, as well as other symptoms of PTSD.

Representative Sherrill Praises Passage

Representative Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) released this statement on the passage of the bipartisan PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act in the Senate:

“I am thrilled to see the Senate pass the bipartisan PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act. I’ve championed this legislation since my first term, because of the incredible impact it will have on veterans’ mental health. Experts agree that service dogs are one of the best mental health treatments to help bring relief, solace, and recovery for our veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress.

“I first became an advocate for this legislation after a number of conversations about the cost barriers many veterans face in trying to obtain a service dog. This treatment has proven results and when President Biden signs this bill into law, more of our veterans will gain access to this life-saving form of therapy. After dedicating so much to the nation, our veterans deserve the best care available and this program will help deliver it. It’s my hope the President signs it as soon as possible.”

The VA will be working with accredited service dog training organizations that provide service dogs to veterans with PTSD, and who are accredited by an accrediting organization with demonstrated experience, national scope, and recognized leadership and expertise in the training of service dogs and education in the use of service dogs.

What is the timing of the PAWS program?

The timing of when this pilot program will go into effect has yet to be determined but once the program gets started, the service it will provide will be a good addition for veterans diagnosed with PTSD as well as their families. 

 

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Federal Commission Recommends Marijuana Research for Veterans

COVER Commission Recommends Marijuana & Psychedelic Research for PTSD Treatment

The COVER (Creating Options for Veterans Expedited Recover) Commission, which is a federal commission that evaluates mental health treatment options for veterans within the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), released a report in January of this year recommending the VA expand its mental health research for veterans. The report notes that cannabis and psychedelic drugs used as treatment for PTSD should be further investigated. Possibly due to COVID-19 and other current issues in the media, this report has not gathered much attention.

The COVER commission conducted their review by holding public meetings, to include meetings with organizations and clinicians, visiting VA facilities, and holding listening sessions and focus groups for veterans. Many veterans already regularly use marijuana, especially with select states allowing for legal consumption. According to the National Center for PTSD at the VA, the number of veterans with PTSD who use cannabis increased from 13% in 2002, to 22.7% in 2014. Even so, both psychedelic drugs and cannabis are Schedule 1 under the Controlled Substances Act, which prevents the VA from conducting research or clinical trials. The COVER commission recommended that the VA should conduct research to determine the potential harm and benefits these drugs may have on veterans, as well as provide up-to-date information to physicians regarding medical cannabis and psychedelic drugs.

The commission noted that private universities and research institutes are conducting research with psychedelics, specifically psilocybin and MDMA, and marijuana for the treatment of PTSD. The first clinical trial researching marijuana use in veterans with PTSD was completed after ten years in early 2019. The trial was conducted by MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), and took place at Scottsdale Research Institute.

The commission recommended that the National Institute on Drug Abuse develop marijuana strains that contain THC levels that more closely resemble the THC levels present in medical cannabis already being used by patients and veterans. Previous research has shown that the marijuana supplied by the University of Mississippi (funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse or NIH/NIDA), which is the only federally approved manufacturer of marijuana since the 1950s, is more closely related to hemp. Scottsdale Research Institute has filed a law suit against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in order to become a second location where federal marijuana can be produced, with the claim that the marijuana manufactured by the University of Mississippi is low quality.

The COVER commission’s recommendations are in line with the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which was introduced in January of 2019 by Congressman Lou Correa, D-CA, and Congressman Clay Higgins, R-LA. The act, approved by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, would require the VA to conduct research on medical marijuana. The act is still pending being brought to the House floor.

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Veterans Economic Recovery Act Bill Introduced

New Legislation for Veterans Economic Recovery Introduced

In an effort to get veterans and their spouses back to work so they can provide for themselves and their families, top Veterans Affairs lawmakers on Capitol Hill (Phil Roe, R-Tenn., Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, Senate ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif.), introduced a bipartisan, bicameral bill on June 4, 2020 ––the Veterans Economic Recovery Act.

Veteran Unemployment Rises

As America grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, rising unemployment is an urgent concern. Veteran unemployment rose to nearly 12 percent in recent weeks. Female veterans have been hit particularly hard with unemployment at about 20 percent in April 2020.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS), some early estimates show as many as 1.2 million veterans in major industries could be affected by layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, and permanent closures of businesses. In addition, the social isolation, anxiety, and demoralizing “left behind” feelings that accompany unemployment stand to hit veterans especially hard.

Aim is to Rapidly Retrain Veterans

This bill was designed to provide the shortest route possible to long-term solutions in the form of meaningful, sustainable work. Its overarching objective is to rapidly retrain veterans to ensure they have the knowledge and skill-sets to make a smooth, successful transition from military to civilian life, quickly reenter the workforce, and continue to thrive in the post-pandemic economy.

What Happens if the Legislation is Passed?

If the legislation is passed, it will provide up to 12 months of educational benefits to help veterans between the ages of 25 – 60 get training in high-demand fields through the Rapid Retraining Program.

The program is intended to mirror current post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits in its tuition funding and housing stipend. If the bill passes, it will be open to 35,000 unemployed veterans who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are not eligible for any other VA educational programs. It will also expand the VET TEC  program (Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses for Training Providers) to assist transitioning service members.

Who is Eligible for the Veterans Economic Recovery Act?

Veterans would need to meet the following criteria to be eligible.

  • Be between 25 and 60 years old.
  • Be unemployed on the day they apply for the program.
  • Have an honorable or other-than-honorable discharge.
  • Not be eligible for any other VA education benefit.
  • Not be enrolled in another federal or state job training program.
  • Not be receiving disability compensation for reasons that led to unemployability.
  • Not be receiving any unemployment benefit when they start training under the program.

According to lawmakers, members of the National Guard or Reserve activated under federal orders for coronavirus response would also be eligible for the program if they meet the other age, unemployment and discharge requirements.

Benefits of the Veterans Economic Recovery Act

Here are some important things to know about this proposed program:

1.) The benefits are non-transferable.

2.) The payments will be made as follows:

    • 50% of the total amount at the start of the program of education.
    • 25% upon completion of the program of education.
    • 25% upon securing employment in a field related to the program of education.

3.) Any recipient who fails to complete the program of education they choose won’t be eligible to receive additional Veterans Economic Recovery Act funds for for another educational program.

If you’re in favor of  The Veterans Economic Recovery Act, you can show your support by asking your Senators and Representative to cosponsor this legislation.  This program already has the support of veteran service organizations including the: VFW, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, WWP, Student Veterans, Blinded Veterans Association, Veterans Education Success, National Guard Association of the United States, and more.

For more on the program, here’s a pdf.

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Covid-19 Stop Movement Order for National Guard and Reservists

What is the COVID-19 Stop Movement Order?

The original Stop Movement Order, suspending travel for all Department of Defense (DOD) persons and their families, put into effect in March, was recently extended until June 30th. The order applies to both active and non-active duty DOD persons who were scheduled or had planned to travel within this timeframe. While the order has stopped many active duty from moving their Permanent Change of Station (PCS) (see further information on this here), National Guard and Reservists are also restricted in their travel, whether on active duty or not. This includes any non-official travel outside of the soldier’s regional area.

Drill and Annual Training

For many National Guard and Reservists, their unit may be located outside of their regional area and possibly in a different state. The DOD has given commanders and units authorization to reschedule, cancel, or determine alternate training locations, such as remote training, for inactive duty training such as drill or annual training. Authorized absences may also be granted if these are not available options, and commanders should convey their decision to their units. You can see the full DOD fact sheet on the order, released in March, here.

Exemptions and Waivers

The following are exclusions to the Stop Movement Order that may affect those in the National Guard and Reserves, per the DOD statement release:

  • Travel related to basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT)
  • Travel related to medical treatment for both patients and medical providers. This exemption also applies to authorized patient escorts and attendants, and to the families of medical providers.
  • Travel for Global Force Management (GFM)
  • Travel by those who have already initiated travel
  • Travel authorized by the Chief of Mission

Waivers for travel may also be obtained on a case by case basis, negotiated by the soldier’s gaining and losing organizations, under the following criteria:

  • Travel is mission essential
  • Travel is necessary for humanitarian reasons
  • Travel is warranted due to extreme hardship

If any DOD persons with travel orders have a waiver, or travel is exempted, they may want to ensure their orders have been properly documented by their gaining organization with the exemption or waiver to ensure a smooth transition. They also should ensure an open line of communication with the organization they are destined for in order to relay travel updates and itinerary plans.

The DOD policy will be reviewed every 15 days to determine if travel is safe to resume prior to June 30th.

Additional Resources

The full Stop Movement Order statement can be found within this link.

You can find more information on the DOD’s response to the Coronavirus at the following links:

Defense.gov Resources
MilitaryOneSource Resources
DefenseTravel.dod.mil Resources

 

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Suicide Prevention Resources For Military & Veterans

With 498 service member suicides in 2019 according to the Defense Department, the U.S. Military as a whole has made it their mission to make that number more manageable. Service member suicides have surpassed the national average year after year as reported by Military Times, making mental health and addiction support resources more necessary.

With online resources, call-in services, and face-to-face support groups, there is always a way to reach out and get the help that is needed.

List of Suicide Prevention Resources

Military Crisis Line

Military Crisis Line is a call, text, and online 24/7 crisis support resource for all veterans and active-duty service members. Once contact is made, the trained responder will work with you to ensure the safety of all involved and help you in any way they can. Even if the crisis does not involve thoughts of suicide, the responder will always listen to what you decide to share with them in an effort to assist. After the call, text, or online conversion, the responder will then connect you with a local medical center to make sure continued support is provided.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

The VA’s online programs provide resources that cover mental health and addiction. By offering links to find a local mental health person of contact, facilities in the surrounding area, and health programs or support groups, the VA is able to help anyone, anywhere. Additionally, the VA provides resources for people who may be in contact with veterans or service members in crisis such as university professors and family members.

7CupsofTea

7 Cups of Tea allows people to have a conversation with trained volunteers and paid professionals at no cost. Holding scheduled online group sessions daily, as well as 24-hour one-on-one conversations with real people, all service members or veterans are able to get anonymous help covering a range of issues they may be experiencing.

Smart Recovery

Smart Recovery is another free online resource for addiction and recovery support. Once registered, the service member or veteran is able to attend over 40 weekly recovery meetings ranging from eating or mood disorders to substance abuse. With military-specific forums, the active duty service members and veterans are able to talk to people who are in a similar line of work.

Real Warriors

Real Warriors offers resources for suicide prevention, addiction recovery, and a great range of other trials that the service member or their family might encounter. With Real Warriors, people are able to obtain the prevention tools they need to better support their families and community all in one place.

Using these resources, individuals, as well as families and professional groups are able to understand the causes and risk factors associated with poor mental health and substance abuse.

Additional Underlying Symptoms for Military

Along with the non-military related risk factors such as stress, poor sleeping habits, and misusing drugs and alcohol, service members often have underlying symptoms that are overlooked as well.

Serving in combat or a similar capacity, regardless of duration, can contribute to being a major risk factor that the service members experience. Due to an unusual amount of physical and mental stress, service members and veterans are more likely to abuse substances in order to alleviate the trauma that is not seen, such as traumatic brain injuries or PTSD.

Social Distancing Presents New Challenges

Social distancing this year due to the worldwide pandemic is causing people to feel more alone than usual. The inability to see friends or co-workers on a normal basis like before is affecting people across the world. Using online support groups, VA hospitals, and staying connected with family and loved ones is a great way to stay positive and helps alleviate the feeling of isolation.

All branches of the military, including the National Guard and Coast Guard, are working to ensure that mental health topics are spoken about just as easily “as we talk about physical fitness, marksmanship, training and education,” reported Military.com.

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COVID-19 Affecting Military Ability to Pay for Healthcare?

With COVID-19 affecting the globe, many find themselves in a desperate financial situation. For those currently in the Reserves or National Guard, or retired from either, it’s possible that you may have lost some of your income, especially if you are not currently on active duty and have a civilian job. You may even be going down the list of your monthly costs, trying to see what can be reduced or deferred. If you have a Tricare plan with monthly payments, such as Tricare Reserve Select or Tricare Retired Reserve, this may be one of your higher monthly bills.

For those enrolled in Tricare Reserve Select, which is typically non-active duty National Guard and Reservists, the monthly premium is $44.17 for an individual and $228.27 for a family. For those enrolled in Tricare Retired Reserve, usually retired National Guard and Reservists under 60 years old, the cost is significantly higher at $444.37 per month for an individual, and $1,066.26 per month for a family. You can see a summary of your plan’s costs and co-payments with the TRICARE Compare Cost Tool. At the time of this article, monthly premiums are not able to be deferred due to COVID-19 related financial trouble. In contrast, if you happen to have USAA as your health insurance provider, they are adding a 90-day extension to their payment grace period, which is normally 30 days (see information here).

Copayments for Tricare Reserve Select range from $15 for outpatient primary services to $62 for inpatient hospitalization. For Tricare Retired Reserve, higher copayments range from $26 for outpatient primary services to $182 for inpatient hospitalization. Although copayments are waived for any COVID-19 related testing and office visits on or after March 18th, beneficiaries may need to pay related copayments up front and subsequently receive a refund from Tricare. All copayments unrelated to COVID-19 must still be paid in full, as well as any pharmacy costs.

Paying monthly premiums, and possibly copayments, may have recently become more difficult for some Tricare beneficiaries. For those who are currently National Guard or Reservists, instead of struggling quietly with these financial burdens, let your unit know if you are unable to make your monthly premium payments or copayments. In turn, your chain of command should emphasize the importance of protecting the health and wellness of their soldiers and families. Those in the National Guard and Reserves do not have the same quick and easy access to resources that those on active duty do, so now is the time to check in with your junior enlisted. For those who are retired Guard or Reserves, your options may be more limited, but you can notify your congressmen of your struggles to bring more attention to the problem.

There are a few solutions that could be implemented to help with these soldiers’ healthcare costs. Similar to what many banks, lenders, and utility companies have done (see list of potential deferment options), it would be reasonable to allow deferment of Tricare payments, and subsequently implement a payment plan to have beneficiaries pay back the missed payments over time. This would help alleviate financial pressure while quarantine regulations are still in effect and many businesses’ doors are closed. Another solution is to allow those who have Tricare Reserve Select or Retired Reserve to be placed on Tricare Prime, which is normally only for those on active duty. Under Tricare Prime beneficiaries must see a military healthcare provider, in contrast to Tricare Reserve Select that allows beneficiaries to choose their provider. Although not everyone lives near a military facility, this would at least give those who do an option to maintain their healthcare coverage while not paying a monthly premium.

With mounting financial concerns, especially in the civilian world, it may be easy to overlook our military personnel who primarily rely on a civilian income, as opposed to an active duty income. If attention is brought to the situation, solutions can be developed to mitigate a section of our current and former military from losing their healthcare.

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Telemedicine Benefits for Military and Veterans

Telemedicine for Military Communities

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, telemedicine is increasingly important and in high demand. Many health programs are temporarily expanding these services, making it easier and safer for people to connect with their healthcare teams.

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is the use of technology to communicate about health, often without having to leave home or visit a healthcare facility. The words telemedicine, telehealth, and virtual medicine are often used interchangeably.

Telemedicine protects patients and healthcare providers by limiting person to person contact. When you can’t meet with your healthcare team in person, telemedicine offers a safe alternative. Limiting in-person healthcare visits also ensures that medical supplies are available to provide care to those directly affected by coronavirus.

Telemedicine has existed for nearly 50 years and began to take shape with the widespread use of the telephone. Some examples of telemedicine include:

  • Secure information sharing allows healthcare providers to share sensitive patient information like lab results, x-ray images, or health records to other members of the healthcare team in a way that protects patient confidentiality.
  • Remote monitoring is a form of telemedicine that allows healthcare providers to monitor health data – such as continuous blood glucose monitoring or cardiac monitoring.
  • Electronic prescriptions can be sent directly to pharmacies. This eliminates the need to worry about losing a paper prescription or messy handwriting.
  • Real-time videoconferencing is perhaps one of the most beneficial forms of telemedicine during the coronavirus pandemic.

Innovative Telemedicine through the VA

While other healthcare programs are currently allowing the use of technologies like FaceTime or Skype during the coronavirus pandemic, the VA has provided secure telehealth services to veterans through VA Video Connect since early 2018. This is a secure videoconferencing app designed specifically to connect veterans to their healthcare providers from a computer or smartphone.

Additional VA Telemedicine Innovations

Annie, an app that sends automated text messages, supports Veterans in playing an active role in their own healthcare. Through automated text messages, Annie empowers Veterans to actively monitor their symptoms during the coronavirus pandemic. The app will then provide advice on contacting a healthcare team or calling the nurse triage line. You must register for this service on the app…share the name of it!

MyHealtheVet is a secure website that allows servicemembers, Veterans, their caregivers, and families to play an active role in their own healthcare. Your MyHealtheVet account gives you access to your health record, allows you to send secure messages to healthcare providers, refill and track prescriptions, and schedule appointments with the VA.

Using the VA appointments tool through your MyHealtheVet, you can request a telehealth appointment or reschedule an existing appointment as a telehealth appointment.

TRICARE Telemedicine Expansions

TRICARE is also encouraging the use of telemedicine through secure videoconferencing. You may need authorization or referral for these services. Covered telemedicine services include:

  • Office visits
  • Preventive health screenings
  • Mental health services

TRICARE has temporarily expanded telemedicine support for family members in the Autism Care Demonstration program. Through secure videoconferencing, parents can get remote, unlimited support guidance services including:

  • Learning applied behavioral analysis techniques
  • Practicing skills with other family members
  • Reviewing caregiver goals

Covered services for qualifying children may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Medical care

All of these telemedicine services require secure videoconferencing with audio and video. Phone calls or text messaging are not included in these benefits.

Not All Health Care is Appropriate for Telemedicine

If you experience a life-threatening emergency call 911 or visit the nearest ER. If you are unsure what to do about a symptom, appointment, or have any concerns at all, it is appropriate to contact your healthcare provider.

Tips for Telemedicine with Your Healthcare Provider

According to MyHealtheVet, there are several things you can do to have a successful healthcare visit using VA Video Connect.

Be prepared. Videoconferencing requires visual and auditory capabilities. Will you be able to see and hear your healthcare provider? Will they be able to hear and see you?

  • Use headphones to improve sound quality.
  • Prevent any background noises – Turn your TV and radio off.
  • Find a well-lit place and position your camera so that your healthcare provider can see you clearly. Holding your smartphone may not provide the best image.

Just like if you were visiting a clinic, be sure you have your health questions and medication list ready for the visit.

Telemedicine improves access to care and is a convenient way to receive routine healthcare services. During the coronavirus pandemic telemedicine is a necessity. TRICARE and the VA offer a variety of innovative telemedicine services to veterans and their families.

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What Veterans Need to Know About COVID-19

COVID-19: What Veterans Need to Know

As a veteran, you might be concerned about COVID-19 and what the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its medical facilities are doing to protect and care for veterans during this pandemic.

For up-to-date info on what organizations are doing to help during this unprecedented crisis, please visit –

Help For Military Families During COVID-19 Pandemic

Here is what has been put out by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs:

What Should You Do If You Think You Have COVID-19?

Thinking you might have COVID-19 is a scary thought, but it is important to stay calm. If you are experiencing symptoms, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, you are encouraged to call your VA medical facility or you can call MyVA311, which is 844-698-2311, press #3 to connect. You can also send secure messages to your health care providers through MyhealtheVet, which is the VA’s online patient portal.

VA clinicians will evaluate veterans’ symptoms and direct you to the most appropriate providers for further evaluations and treatment. Then you will know that the right steps are being taken if you feel you could be sick with COVID-19.

What Should You Do If You Have A Routine Appointment?

You might have a regular appointment scheduled that you are not sure what to do about. If this is the case, the VA is encouraging you to call your VA facility before seeking any care. Some appointments may be converted to video chats too. You can also request telehealth appointments from your VA providers.

What About Visiting VA Facilities?

The VA is urging visitors that don’t feel well to postpone any visits to VA medical facilities. They will also have a limited amount of entrances through which visitors can enter the facility. All patients, visitors, and employees will also be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and possible exposure.

What About VA Nursing Homes and Spinal Cord Injury Units?

It is important to know that both of these facilities will be closed to all outside visitors. Clinical staff will be screened for COVID-19 daily and staff will only work within those units. Exceptions can be made for cases of when a veteran is in a hospice unit or an inpatient spinal cord injury unit.

What About Congress? What Are They Doing to Help?

The CARES Act was passed and signed into law which will give each American with a social security number a payment, either $1,200 or $2,400 for married couples. This is meant to help relieve some of the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some veterans might not normally file a tax return but in order to receive the payment, you will need to. You can visit the IRS website for more information on this and find out what you need to do in your specific situation.

What If I Am A Student Veteran?

Legislation was passed on March 19, 2020 to ensure that student veterans will receive waivers for classes that will now be online instead of in-person because of the pandemic. This will allow student veterans to be able to maintain their current monthly housing allowance rate under the legislation.

RELATED: Congress to Stop Coronavirus’ Impact on GI Bill Rates

The VA’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) led A Bipartisan Letter with Ranking Member Dr. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and 25 of their Committee colleagues to Secretary Wilkie asking for answers on VA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to daily and weekly updates. You can read the letter here.

What Has Been Done to Help Stop the Spread of Covid-19?

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has taken the following actions:

  • Worked to eliminate copayments for testing and medical appointments for veterans
  • Received continuous updates on VA’s COVID-19 response and emergency preparedness
  • Continued Committee oversight of VA’s mission to respond to a national emergency
  • Protected student veterans
  • Ensured VA’s ability to maintain continuity of operations

You can read more about what they have done here.

What Else Can You Do to Keep Yourself and Your Family Safe?

  • Make sure you are following the CDC related guidelines
  • Follow the guidelines put out by the VA and any VA facility you need to visit
  • You can email the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at Majority@Mail.House.Gov if you or a veteran you know needs their assistance.
  • You can also email them any stories that could help inform the Committee’s oversight of the VA’s response to COVID-19.
  • Follow the guidelines and requirements of your local city and state.
  • Manage your mental health and stress. You can visit this VA website to help.

We are all going through an unprecedented time as we try to navigate COVID-19 and what it means for our daily lives. Stay safe, and watch for any updates that might affect you and your family.

 

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Help For Military Families During COVID-19 Pandemic

Organizations Supporting Military, Veterans and Their Families During The COVID-19 Pandemic

During this time, many military families might be struggling either emotionally or financially. A spouse might have lost their job, they might need to spend more money on childcare, and regular resources could be limited. The good news is that there are different programs and organizations that can help.

Financial Needs

Military Relief Societies

The military has relief societies for each branch of the military. Here is what they are doing during this time:

  • Army Emergency Relief (AER)– They are allowing people to request relief by email instead of meeting with someone in person. They are also allowing Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers to apply on a case-by-case basis.
  • Air Force Aid Society – They have stated that they will be still conducting business, even if the base is “shut down.”
  • Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society– They have a Quick Assist Loan that offers up to $500 in a zero-interest loan as well as other programs and loans to help military families.
  • Coast Guard Mutual Assistance– They will allow you to request assistance online, and offer loans of up to $6,000 for loss of pay by a spouse, child care needs, and other costs. They also are offering limited grants for change fees that aren’t being waved.

The Independence Fund

The Independence Fund has set up Independence@Home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an emergency program to directly support its catastrophically disabled veterans, caregivers, and their families. They are assisting with costs such as mortgage or rent, utilities, childcare, transportation service, home WiFi services, household cleaning, and upkeep, grocery and medical product delivery and streaming services for work and learning.

USAA Helping Those Affected By COVID-19

USAA is going to be returning $520 million to its members. This is because of data that shows their members are driving less because of stay-at-home and shelter-in-place guidance across the country. Every member who had an auto insurance policy as of March 31st, 2020, will receive a 20% credit on two months of premiums in the coming weeks.

How do you get this credit? It will automatically be deposited into your account. You don’t have to call or do anything else. In addition to that, USAA is also helping its members in other ways.

USAA President and CEO Wayne Peacock stated that, “We understand the impact this pandemic is having on our country, and especially our military community and their families, many of whom also are working on the front lines of the crisis. Returning premiums provides timely help for our members.”

In addition to returning premiums, they will also be:

  • Offering special payment arrangements to members who are experiencing financial difficulties.
  • Expanding auto insurance coverage to those using their personal vehicles to deliver food, medicine, and other goods for commercial purposes.
  • Offering special payment assistance programs, such as a 90-day credit card payment deferral.
  • Offering special payment arrangements on life and health insurance policies.
  • Waiving and reimbursing deductibles and copayments for coronavirus-related testing on or after February 4, 2020, for those with the USAA Medicare Supplement plan.
  • Reducing managed portfolio fees 50% effective April 1st through May 20th, 2020.

They have also enabled all 35,000 employees to work from home and have committed $4.4 million to help military-focused and other non-profits respond to the pandemic. Here is the press release with more information from USAA.

Navy Federal

Navy Federal is offering loan extensions, deferred payments, a pandemic relief loan, and more.

You can apply for a Pandemic relief loan, with terms up to 24 months.  The APR for this loan is currently 6%.

You can request forbearance and deferment on you mortgage, student loans and auto loans.

Navy Federal wants you to contact them directly or sign into your online banking account to apply for any of the programs they are offering.

If you are a small business owner, you can apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan through Navy Federal.  Though, you must be a Navy Federal business member, on or before Feb 15 2020, to be able to apply.

For more information, you can check out their COVID 19 FAQ page.

PenFed Foundation

The PenFed Foundation is offering grants to military members that are struggling financially due to COVID-19.  If you are approved for assistance, they will pay your creditor or landlord directly.

At the time of this article, the PenFed Foundation had exhausted all of their funding.  They are trying to obtain more donations from their donors. They do offer other programs that aren’t related to the virus and are worth checking out regardless.

For more info, please visit PenFed’s site.

Wounded Warrior Project’s $10 Million Commitment During Covid-19

Wounded Warrior Project – On April 9th, the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) announced that they were committing $10 million to assist those Wounded Warriors who needed financial help during this unprecedented time in our country.

They are offering a grant of $1,000 to help pay for groceries, rent, utilities, or any other essential expense. They reached out via email to all warriors who were registered with them on or before April 8th, 2020. If you fall in this category, check your email or reach out to them directly at 877.TEAM.WWP (832.6997).

DAV Assisting Qualified Unemployed Veterans During Covid-19

Disabled American Veterans – This nonprofit organization has been around for 100 years, serving America’s disabled veteran community. Now, in the face of COVID-19, they are extending their disaster relief program to offer assistance with Covid-19 relief.

Any veteran with a service-connected disability, who has lost employment as a direct result of the pandemic, is eligible to apply. This includes those who are self-employed or small business owners. You do not have to be a registered member with the DAV. They have an online application which will gather some demographic information and allow you to upload documentation proving your disabled status. If you don’t have that readily available, you can head over to the VA’s eBenefit website. They will also ask for employment verification to show that you were employed before the quarantine.

Once your application is submitted, they will verify your documents. Once an approval decision has been made, you will be notified via email. Within two weeks from that notification, you’ll receive your check in the mail.

The gift amount is up to $250.

Federal Student Loans

Okay, so this last one isn’t geared towards the military.  But odds are good that you, your partner, or your children may have student loans.  Right now, federal student loan payments have been suspended through September 30th 2020.  This should be done automatically by your lender.  Definitely check with them to make sure they suspended your payments.

VA to Suspend Collections From Veterans

During President Donald Trump’s April 2nd new conference, he announced directed Secretary Wilkie to suspend debt collections. “At my direction, Secretary Wilkie will use any authority at his disposal to extend deadlines for benefits and suspend debt collections.”

The VA’s Debt Management Center states that if you are affected by COVID-19 and need financial relief, to contact them at 1-800-827-0648 to request assistance.

VA.GOV

The VA is administering COVID-19 tests at all of their VA facilities.  They are asking that you call before showing up to one of their clinics.

If you are a veteran, you really should sign up with them.  Even if you don’t plan on using their healthcare services, it is worth it to at least know what they can offer you.

For more info, please visit here.

TRICARE

Pharmacy Changes due to COVID-19

With the onset of COVID-19, many aspects of our lives have changed out of necessity. My six kids are now homeschooled, our doctor and dental appointments have been cancelled for the next few months, and teleworking is now the norm. While these circumstances are relatively mild, there are many in the military community who may be impacted by possible changes in the use of military pharmacies, namely switching to TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery services, or switching prescriptions to TRICARE retail network pharmacies.

At the end of March, TRICARE announced on their website that some military pharmacies may close or offer decreased services because of limitations due to COVID-19. The acting chief of the Defense Health Agency’s (DHA) Pharmacy Operations Division (POD), Col. Markus Gmehlin indicated in an interview that the changes and limitations are intended to protect the teams who are providing care and medications to all beneficiaries. Colonel Gmehlin is urging patrons who use military pharmacies to either switch to home delivery options or to have their medications filled at off-post in-network pharmacies.

The home delivery option is probably the best since you can get up to a 90-day supply on most medications. The downside is that there are co-pays for both of those options, with home delivery being the cheapest overall. If your prescription is for 14-days or less, consider using a retail pharmacy in the TRICARE network. TRICARE offers a cool tool to help estimate costs of copayments and cost-shares.

TRICARE offers the following recommendations:

  • Contact your pharmacy

If you do not know the number for your local military pharmacy, use this locator.

  • Contact Express Scripts, Inc.

Express Scripts can be reached at 877.363.1303, or on their website, and request a home delivery of your medications.

  • Contact a Retail Network Pharmacy

My family and I use Walgreens to fill our  prescriptions, but that may not be the same in other parts of the country. You can also use the Express Scripts website to locate an in-network pharmacy near you.

Please note that you must have refills remaining in order for the home delivery service or retail pharmacy to fill your prescription. If you have no refills remaining, please contact your medical provider.

Emotional Needs

Military One Source

At Military One Source, they have added a few new programs to their website. This is what they will be doing in addition to what they already provide:

  • They will have a section on their website to provide us with resources, updates, and information about the impacts of COVID-19 on the military community that will be updated regularly.
  • As of March 24th, 2020, they will be offering non-medical counseling video sessions for children and youth. This can help your children if they are having a difficult time right now.
  • They will be going live on Facebook, Monday through Friday at noon ET, highlighting resources for military families.

The USO

The USO is offering programs and activities for military families. You can find these through the different USOs both here in the US and overseas. Some of what they are offering is:

  • Digital scavenger hunts
  • Movie trivia online
  • Live streaming storytimes
  • Workshops for military spouses online
  • Virtual “Coffee Connections Live” series
  • Virtual creative arts programs
  • Free DIY workout routines online
  • Holiday fun online

Blue Star Families

Blue Star Families, in partnership with the Association of Defense Communities, is launching COVID-19 Military Support Initiative (CMSI) to establish a clearinghouse for vetted, official information both to and from military and veteran families about benefits, as well as updates during the pandemic. They will provide resources and expertise with daily updates through a newsletter, host virtual town halls, bring military community, family organizations, and experts together to identify and advance best practices and policy solutions and create a repository to capture and document best practices and lessons learned.

The longer this pandemic goes on, the more relief and help might come out to help military families as well as civilian ones. This isn’t an easy time and if you do need that extra help or support, make sure to look into these programs and organizations to find relief.

States Helping Military and Veterans Affected By Covid-19

Different states might have their own relief funds.

  • The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs has a Military Family Relief Fund COVID-19 Special Application that is available to submit now. This fund will provide undisrupted assistance to veterans and their families during this crisis.
  • Your own state– Keep an eye on what your own state or city might be offering.

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