FRA NewsBytes July 31, 2015

Newsbytes 7/31/2015

Newsbytes 7/31/2015

In this issue:
FRA NED Meets with White House Staff on Agent Orange/Blue Water Navy Issue
NDAA Stalls in Conference Committee over Pharmacy Co-pays
House Passes VA Employment Reform
62nd Anniversary of Korean War Armistice

FRA NED Meets with White House Staff on Agent Orange/Blue Water Navy Issue
FRA National Executive Director (NED) Thomas Snee met with White House staff Ryan Robinson this week to discuss FRA’s legislative agenda. The discussion focused on the “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act” (S. 681/ H.R. 969), which would clarify a presumption for filing disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for ailments associated with exposure to Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War. FRA has long sought Congressional action recognizing that the so-called “Blue Water” veterans, who served off the coast of Vietnam, were exposed to Agent Orange herbicide. The bill authorizes presumptive status for VA disability claims associated with this exposure for this group of veterans.

Snee thanked the Administration for its support of these two bills, but warned there is much to be done to save faith with veterans of past conflicts. Passage of the bills would demonstrate our nation’s commitment to our service members from beginning to end, not just on the battlefield.

NDAA Stalls in Conference Committee over Pharmacy Co-pays
Representatives and senators were unable to reach a consensus on specific provisions in the final version of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-S. 1376/H.R. 1735) before the August recess. Press reports indicate that one of the sticking points is TRICARE funding. The current (FY 2015) Defense Department (DoD) health care budget has a $2 billion deficit. Sharp increases in compound prescription drug costs and the overall growth in the Pentagon’s health care cost have drained the current budget more than expected. (For additional information on the compound prescription issue, read the July 30 Military Update column, available on www.fra.org.)

It should also be noted that since 2011, the DoD has taken $3.7 billion from the TRICARE fund to use for other programs. DoD has requested authority from Congress to move money around in its current budget to plug the hole, but the shortfall also poses a challenge to finalizing the FY 2016 NDAA. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) is using to the Defense Health Agency’s (DHA) current fiscal problems to push for increases in TRICARE pharmacy co-pays for retirees. Politico reports that House Republican negotiators, led by House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), are opposing the increase, but have offered a smaller increase as a compromise. FRA opposes any additional pharmacy co-pays; members are strongly urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their Representative and senators to oppose this provision in the final NDAA.

House Passes VA Employment Reform
The House this week passed (256-170) the “VA Accountability Act” (H.R. 1994), sponsored by HVAC Chairman Jeff Miller (Fla.), which makes it easier to demote or remove a VA employee for poor performance or misconduct. The bill passed on a predominantly partisan roll call. Prospects in the Senate are uncertain and the president has issued a veto threat. Rep. Miller said the measure brings “much-needed accountability” to the department, noting that officials routinely take months to punish or dismiss bad workers. “Bad employees mean bad customer service,” Miller said. “If we truly want our veterans to have the very best care and services, status quo is no longer acceptable.”

62nd Anniversary of Korean War Armistice
This week marks the 62nd anniversary of the signing of the armistice ending hostilities (July 27, 1953) in the Korean conflict. Sometimes referred to as “the forgotten war,” this conflict began when Communist North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. More than 52,000 Americans died in the fight for South Korea’s freedom. In recognition of the anniversary, Chairman Jeff Miller (Fla.) and Ranking Member Corrine Brown (Fla.) led a bipartisan delegation from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

FRA salutes veterans of the Korean Conflict, including Representatives Charles Rangel (N.Y.) and Sam Johnson (Texas).