In its final days, the 109th Congress passed the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act to improve a range of veterans’ medical services. It included funds for more clinicians and specialists to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and to rehabilitate blinded veterans.
The $3.2 billion act, signed by the President, increases support for service members returning from war, improves VA outreach, and provides an additional $65 million to increase the number of clinicians treating PTSD.
The new law increases the number of community-based outpatient clinics qualified to treat mental illnesses and increases the bereavement counseling available to families who have lost loved ones in wartime.
It also directs Veterans Affairs to notify individuals promptly if personal information collected by the VA is compromised through security breaches or fraud.
Veterans’ health care construction budgets include an additional $600 million for repair or replacement of flood-damaged facilities in New Orleans and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast. Altogether, 22 major VA construction projects are authorized nationwide.
The law also expands dependent education assistance for the spouse or child of a service member hospitalized or receiving outpatient care before discharge for a total and permanent service-connected disability.
VA Stats Improve
Weeks before he stepped down as Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) touted new VA statistics showing a sharp drop in waiting time for health appointments.
Early in 2006, nearly 18,000 veterans had waited 30 days or longer for an initial visit with a VA doctor. By October, that number had dropped to less than 4,000, according to VA data.
Craig called the drop “remarkable.”
More than seven million veterans are enrolled in the VA health system. Ninety-six percent of them can see a primary care physician within 30 days.
The services have defended the speed and review processes they use in their awarding of the Medal of Honor and other valor awards.
In testimony before the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee in December, service leaders suggested the changed nature of warfare—not command indifference or bureaucratic inertia—is the likely reason that only two Medals of Honor had been awarded to date in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) said DOD is conducting its own comprehensive review of military awards, with a report due to Congress next June.
But McHugh wanted the services to respond to allegations of disparities in the awarding of medals, delays in reviewing awards, and a perceived tightening of standards over the years regarding eligibility for the Medal of Honor.
Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower and personnel, defended current criteria and processing for awards and decorations.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, Brady said, the Air Force has awarded two Air Force crosses, 34 Silver Stars, 698 Distinguished Flying Crosses including 164 with valor, and 3,849 Bronze Stars including 285 for valor.
The Army awarded more than 52,000 Bronze Stars.
The Marine Corps, by contrast, had awarded 1,466.
Officials explained the difference by pointing out that the Army and Air Force award the Bronze Star for meritorious service in combat zones as well as for valor. The Marine Corps typically recognizes valor only with a Bronze Star.
Iraq and Afghanistan lag in the number of valor medals awarded in previous conflicts. Brig. Gen. Richard P. Mills, director of the personnel management division at Marine Corps headquarters, said these wars are different.
Remotely detonated bombs are the enemy’s weapon of choice, he explained, which limits opportunities for service members to show heroism. Also impacting the number of valor awards, Mills suggested, is reliance by US forces on their own standoff weapons, such as smart bombs and missiles, to destroy the enemy.
“That improves the force protection and safety of our troops during the attacking process,” Mills said. “But it limits the opportunities to close with and engage the enemy face to face … and perhaps limits the opportunity for individual recognition and awards.”
All said their services are striving to speed up the awards process. But Mills said accuracy would not be sacrificed for speed, especially with the Medal of Honor.
The Military Coalition, an umbrella group that represents more than three dozen service associations and veterans organizations, including the Air Force Association, has unveiled a list of legislative goals for 2007. Most of scores of specific initiatives that TMC says it backs are intended to improve quality of life for service members, reserve component personnel, military retirees, and survivors.
Issues that the 110th Congress will be urged to support include:
- Increasing active forces to relieve the operational strain on the services.
- Resumption of annual pay raises for the military set to one-half percentage point above annual wage growth in the private sector.
- Pay raises for midcareer and senior enlisted personnel, warrant officers, and some officer grades to ensure their pay is equal to the 70th percentile of private workers of comparable age, experience, and education level.
- Adopting new initiatives to ease deployment strain on families, including expansion of career and educational opportunities for military spouses.
- Revising DOD housing standards on which Basic Allowance for Housing rates are based, to make them more “realistic.”
- Raising household weight allowances for senior enlisted members moving between assignments.
- Setting new benchmark benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill so that MGIB reimbursements cover the average cost of attending a four-year public college.
- Raise Selected Reserve MGIB benefits from 29 percent of the rate of active duty MGIB benefits to 47 percent, the level set when Reserve MGIB benefits began.
- Urging states to provide service members assigned there with in-state tuition for military students.
- Repealing the SBP-DIC offset, so that survivors of retirees who die of service-connected causes and who paid into the military Survivor Benefit Plan receive both benefits in full, eliminating the current dollar-for-dollar offset.
- Accelerating the effective date of SBP premium paid-up rule, from October 2008 to October 2007, for SBP participants who have attained age 70 and have paid premiums for at least 30 years.
- Raising DIC benefits from $1,067 a month, or 41 percent of disabled retirees’ disability compensation, up to $1,316 a month, or 55 percent of retirees’ compensation.
- Expanding both Combat Related Special Compensation and Concurrent Retirement and Disability Payments to more disabled retirees.
- Authorizing changes to the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act to base former-spouse awards on retirees’ pay grade and years of service at time of divorce rather than at time of retirement.
- Lowering retirement age of Guard and Reserve members.
Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), new chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, promised that a Democratic-led committee will do more to improve veterans’ benefits, particularly with regard to education, health care, and postwar adjustment.
“In a time of war, the best thing for morale of troops is knowing that they’re going to be treated well when they come home,” Filner said.
He called the current Montgomery GI Bill “completely out of date” with monthly benefits set so low they cover only about “20 percent of the cost of college. We want it to cover the full cost like it used to.”
GI Bill benefits for reserve component members should be made portable into civilian life when member leave drill status. Also, VA-backed home loans for veterans carry “unrealistic caps” on loan amounts, he said.
Mental Health Concerns
Too many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Filner said, aren’t properly screened and treated for the mental wounds of war, which have led to substance abuse, suicide, family dissolutions, and homelessness.
Though Filner had no firm numbers on suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, he said, “it looks to me like there have been several hundred. And it looks to me like 98 percent of them could have been prevented if people had recognized the situation.”
Filner said he supports expansion of VA budgets sufficiently to allow all veterans access to VA health care whether or not they have injuries or illnesses tied to service and regardless of their earned income.
Medicare Doctor Rates
Medicare-eligible military retirees, as well as other Medicare patients, were spared possible tightening of access to physicians when Congress, in December, rescinded a provision of law that would have frozen doctor reimbursements at 2006 rates.
Medicare physician rates instead rose by 5.1 percent for 2007.