Action in Congress

Oct. 1, 2005

Warner Pounded on “Offset”

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, took a full blast of criticism from military widows and service associations.

The complaint arose from a recent Warner amendment to the 2006 defense authorization bill. It promised a delay for as much as two years on a vote to eliminate a so-called “Survivor Benefit Plan-Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (SBP-DIC) offset.” Ending the offset was a priority this year for The Military Coalition, which includes the Air Force Association.

Under current law, a dollar-for-dollar cut in survivor benefits occurs when a surviving spouse begins drawing DIC from the VA.

DIC is tax-free pay of at least $993 a month, available to survivors if a service spouse dies on active duty or from service-connected injuries or illnesses.

In late July, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) proposed an amendment (S. Admt. 762) to repeal the cut. On the next day, Warner introduced a “second degree,” or replacement, amendment calling for a study. The Senate immediately recessed, setting up a fall battle.

Retirees and surviving spouses complained to Warner that there is no need for a study and he should withdraw his amendment.

What Warner Wanted

The Warner amendment would direct the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission to examine the SBP-DIC offset in the context of a comprehensive review of veterans’ disability compensation, which has enjoyed numerous recent enhancements.

Because that panel won’t complete its report until August 2006, advocates for military widows accused Warner of trying to delay a vote on the SBP-DIC offset until early 2007.

Worse, in their view, is the danger that the commission might even oppose ending the offset. The Warner amendment advises the panel to weigh retiree and survivor improvements such as:

  • The phaseout of a ban on “concurrent receipt” of military retired pay and VA disability compensation for seriously disabled retirees and those with combat-related disabilities.
  • The enhancement of SBP by phasing out a drop in benefits at age 62.
  • The extension of SBP to the family of any military member who dies while on active duty.
  • An increase in the military death gratuity, from about $12,000 to $100,000.
  • An increase in maximum coverage under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, from $250,000 to $400,000.

Service organizations worry that the commission will conclude that there is no need for extra positive steps.

Household Goods Weight Allowance

In final negotiations over the 2006 defense authorization bill, the Senate will decide whether to accept or reject a House measure to raise household goods weight allowances for senior enlisted grades.

The House-approved plan holds that, as of Jan. 1, 2006, the following rules would apply:

  • E-9 with dependents would be able to ship at government expense 15,000 pounds of household goods, an increase of 500 pounds over current allowances. E-9 without dependents could ship up to 13,000 pounds, about 1,000 pounds more than today.
  • E-8 with dependents could ship an extra 500 pounds, to a revised ceiling of 14,000 pounds. E-8 with no dependents also would move up by 1,000 pounds, to 12,000.
  • E-7 with dependents could ship up to 13,000 pounds—an increase of 500—while those with no dependents would be limited to 11,000 pounds.

The House provision is itself a compromise. Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) proposed a bill (HR 1406) with even higher allowances. Latham said current senior enlisted allowances “are inconsistent with their time in service, increased responsibility, family size, personal status, and the respect they have earned,” but he picked up only 15 co-sponsors for a more robust package.

VA Shortfall I

On Aug. 2, President Bush signed into law the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies appropriations bill (HR 2361)—and thus, without ceremony, added $1.5 billion in emergency funding to the Department of Veterans Affairs health care budget for Fiscal 2005.

Bush’s written statement, released on signing the bill, made no mention of the VA emergency funding contained therein. The act closes the books on one VA health care shortfall, which had become a political embarrassment to the Bush team because the VA had evidently underestimated the scale of the need.

VA Shortfall II

Bush Administration officials and the Republican-led Congress turned their attention to adding another $1.9 billion to VA health care accounts, above what the White House had sought, for Fiscal 2006.

House and Senate Appropriations and Veterans’ Affairs Committee leaders, as they worked the issue, made public pledges that VA health care will be fully funded for 2006.

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to insist that the money for 2006 won’t be sufficient. Rep. Lane Evans (Ill.), ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the shortfall acknowledged by VA officials “is close to $3 billion for next year.”

Evans contended that the Administration came in low, despite having reason to believe the figure was $3 billion.

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), committee chairman, expressed little confidence in the Administration’s new number for 2006.

“The past three weeks have exposed basic flaws in VA’s budgetary process—flaws which caused a shortfall of almost $3 billion. Congress has already acted once to ensure that the VA has the funding it needs to successfully carry out its important mission. We will act again.”

Stay tuned.

VA Patient Waits

Members of Congress are worried about an increase in the amount of time it takes a patient to get a VA medical appointment, as documented by a new VA inspector general report.

IG inspectors visited eight VA medical facilities, interviewed 247 staff responsible for scheduling appointments, and reviewed more than 1,100 medical care appointments scheduled during a week in June 2004.

The results showed:

  • Schedulers did not follow established procedures when selecting the type of appointment and entering the desired appointment date.
  • Schedulers often failed to select the next available appointment date for patients.
  • Only 65 percent of “next available” appointment dates were within 30 days of dates desired by patients, well below the goal of 90 percent.
  • VA requires that veterans with service-connected disabilities receive priority access, but schedulers often used incorrect procedures. As a result, actual waiting times were understated, resulting in medical facility directors being unaware that 2,009 service-connected-disabilities veterans waited longer than 30 days from desired date of care. If they cannot be seen within 30 days, VA must provide for their care at another VA facility or through a non-VA provider at VA expense. That doesn’t occur as often as it should, however, if VA medical facilities understate waiting times.
  • VA medical facilities did not have effective procedures to ensure all veterans either had appointments within four months of the desired date of care or were identified as being on an electronic waiting list.
  • Inaccurate waiting time data and waiting lists compromise VA’s ability to assess and manage demand for medical care.

With the IG report suggesting longer patient waits at VA facilities nationwide, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) asked for some current patient waiting times. The data provided show 1,638 patients waiting more than 30 days for appointments in Cleveland, 621 in San Diego, 287 in Indianapolis, and 2,650 in Tampa.

VA officials told the IG that they agreed with the report findings and were taking steps to improve scheduler training, performance, and accountability.

Graham “Adamant” on TRS

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was “adamant” about getting final approval of his plan to open Tricare Reserve Select insurance to any drilling Guard or Reserve member.

The Senate this summer had approved Graham’s proposal to let reserve component members join the insurance plan. All signs pointed to tough negotiations with the House, however.

Graham, chairman of the Senate armed services subcommittee on military personnel, called his Reserve Tricare provision “absolutely essential” to taking “better care” of reservists and families while improving recruiting and readiness.

In the summer months, Graham said in an interview, reserve component casualties in Iraq outnumbered active duty losses. He added that operational demands on reserve forces “are going to grow, not lessen.”

As a result, he added, the military needed “new benefits for a new war.” The cornerstone of an improved benefits package would be access to full-time military health care, Graham said.

TRS Politics, Up and Down

Graham’s amendment gathered impressive political support. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, co-sponsored his measure.

They were joined by SASC chairman Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). Warner planned to champion Graham’s provision in a conference with House members.

The House was divided in early fall. The House Armed Services Committee had adopted a similar amendment from Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), but the chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Cal­if.), excised it, saying it violated House budget rules. Its sponsors did not identify ways to offset its cost—estimated to reach $3.85 billion over five years.

Bush Administration leaders and House Republicans worried that there would be no brake on TRS costs. They said civilian employers likely would take advantage of the expanded benefit to tighten their own offerings to employees serving in reserve components. Some employers already pay reservists to use Tricare rather than employer-provided insurance, said the Pentagon.