In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
I have always tried to stay informed on legislation and thought that I had done a pretty good job of it in my adult lifetime. It wasn't until my son was wounded that I realized how little I — and the rest of the public — knew about "the system" and services for the military, the wounded, veterans and service retirees.
It was a shock to me, for instance, to learn that the 94 percent of military personnel who were medically discharged from the service with less than a 30 percent disability rating received a lump sum severance payment from their service branch, but were required to repay it in full from their Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits! Fortunately, lobbying by veterans' organizations and outrage from ordinary citizens led Congress to discontinue that practice in 2008. Unfortunately, the repeal was not retroactive, nor did it prevent the repayments for those medically discharged prior to January 28, 2008! This was unbelievable to me, because Congress said that it could not find the extra $2 million it would have taken stop the practice immediately for all veterans. Of course, this was after Congress approved such things as $4.8 million for wood utilization research! I only wish I was kidding...
It was outcries by legitimate veterans and military organizations that turned the attention of the country and Congress to the need for funding better diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in returning Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom personnel. Likewise, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans — among others — and their members immediately called attention to and succeeded in the repeal of a proposal that would have forced private insurance companies to pay for the treatment of military veterans who suffered service-connected disabilities and injuries.
It is important for all of us to stay current in knowing about legislation that affects our active and retired military, Guard and Reserve members. For example, legislation passed more than a decade ago tied the reimbursement rates for Tricare (health insurance for the military & retirees) to reimbursement rates for Medicare, and mandated a reduction in those rates to physicians. Each year since then, Congress has delayed but not repealed the fee-setting formula, which would decrease rates each year. On December 19, 2009, the implementation of a 21 percent cut in Medicare and Tricare payments to physicians was delayed until the end of February 2010, setting up a new crisis in two months. Congress has refused to eliminate these legislated cuts altogether, as the votes to forestall annual rate reductions is used as a pork-spending bargaining chip by legislators. The elimination of these mandated cuts was initially part of the recently-passed health care reform, but legislators removed the measure, because it would have pushed the cost of the health care legislation over the forbidden $1 trillion mark.
Whether or not Medicare and Tricare payments are cut is of critical importance, not only on an individual basis for current personnel and their families, but in a broader sense, for the military and its ability to attract and retain qualified individuals. Currently, our military is an all-volunteer affair, and history has shown that lower reimbursement rates for Tricare (and Medicare) coupled with the higher documentation requirements, drives medical practitioners away from accepting patients covered by the plans.
It is important to keep legislators honest when it comes to legislation and programs that affect military members and veterans. For instance, we must remain attentive to proposed mandates for services that are unfunded — legislation that requires some agency of Federal or state government to provide a service but fails to provide funding. So then, the onus is on Federal agencies or the states to "find" the money by cutting other programs or increasing fees. And the result is that well-meaning but underfunded and poorly designed programs end up failing.
We need to be wary of oft-used election-year ploys of adding requirements without increasing funds for the expansion of an existing program, or mandating an unrealistic goal and/or an unrealistic implementation timetable (such as increasing the number of psychiatrists/psychologists five-fold in a 12 month period). Politicians love to proclaim themselves as heroes for creating this type of legislation, and then point fingers and place blame when the goals of those pieces of legislation are not met.
We should also be cautious about legislation that purports to be in the interests of military members or veterans, but in its actuality and application, does not actually help. For example, the introduced but not-passed Veterans' Mental Health Treatment First Act would have prohibited the VA from determining a disability rating for PTSD or other mental health condition until a veteran had complied with a VA-mandated 12-month treatment program first, making life more difficult for veterans with PTSD.
It is important for all of us — citizens who truly support the troops and who honor our veterans — to become active and remain engaged in protecting the warrior legacy. As we head into a new year, I implore everyone in the military, veterans, their families and the general public to learn about proposed and pending legislation and to be energetic in communicating their opinions to their Senators and Representatives. This is important not just at the federal level, but at the state levels as well.
As state and federal legislators look to reduce spending or find funding for pet (read: pork) projects, military and veterans programs will be looked at as likely sources for cuts, because of their relative size to other budget commitments. Our watchfulness will be vitally important to the roughly 1.4 million personnel on active duty, the additional 900,000 members of the Reserve and National Guard and the 23.2 million military veterans in the United States.
You do not have to be a one-person band, either. There are many legitimate military and veterans' organizations that have legislative actions, educational newsletters, and others services. A majority of these organizations do not require visitors to be a member in order to access relevant information on their websites.
American Veterans (AMVETS)
Association of the United States Army
Disabled American Veterans
FRA (formerly Fleet Reserve Association)
Military Officers Association of America
Non-Commissioned Officers Association
Veterans of Foreign Wars
Many of these organizations also provide a means of sending communications directly to all your elected officials via the organization's website, and they usually provide suggested language whether in support or opposition to an item. There are also hundreds of other chartered and non-chartered veterans organizations that can be searched at the VA's Directory of Veterans Service Organizations.
You can also track veteran-related legislation via the Department of Veterans Affairs and via the official legislative portal THOMAS.gov (which allows a search by bill number or key word). You can track your Senator's votes via Senate.gov and your Representatives through House.gov. The websites for the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs and U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also great resources.
It is in everyone's best interests to support those who serve, past, present and future.
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