The 21st Century GI Bill Enhancement Act, to be introduced the last week in March, also would close the gap between current benefit levels and college costs, said Smith, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The proposal is a possible alternative to H.R. 320, a more expensive bill designed to provide full tuition and a stipend to Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) beneficiaries.
The legislation announced Tuesday would raise the current $650 per month to $900 in the first year, to $950 the second year and to $ 1,100 the third year. When fully phased in, the education benefit would total $39,600, an amount roughly equal to the tab for a commuter student at a four-year public college. The current benefit totals $23,400, which pays for about 2 1/2 years of college.
"The bottom line," Smith said, "is that veterans will get $16,200 more than he or she gets today , making college doable--an opportunity come true for more veterans."
Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., said that according to the College Board's most recent statistics, average annual tuition and fees at a four-year public college come to $9,229 for commuting students and to $11,338 for those living on campus. The same costs at four-year private institutions currently are $21,704 and $24,946, respectively.
"With the current basic MGIB benefit of $5,850, however, a veteran is expected to pay for tuition, fees, and room and board over the academic year," said Evans.
H.R. 320, the so-called Evans -Dingell bill introduced earlier this session by Evans and Rep. John D. Dingell, D -Miss., is modeled on the recommendations of the Principi Commission and aims at restoring the MGIB program to its post-World War II effectiveness, and its power as a military recruitment incentive.
"Veterans are not using the Montgomery GI Bill benefits they earned through honorable military service, and high-quality, college-bound young Americans are choosing not to serve in the armed forces," said Smith, adding that he is optimistic about the passage of H.R. 320 while simultaneously supporting the new legislation.
"The projected on-budget surplus over the next ten years will be $2.7 trillion. Surely this nation can devote a small portion to revitalizing America's military and to providing a
readjustment benefit for veterans that fully meets the cost of obtaining higher education today," said Dingell in a prepared statement.
Also speaking in favor of the new legislation were former House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman G.V. "Sonny " Montgomery, author of the current program; Sens. Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Tim Johnson , D-S.D.; Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering, R-Miss.; James Fischl of the American Legion , and Paul Hayden, associate director for legislative service of the Veterans of Foreign Wars
"In recent years the GI Bill has lost much of its value due mainly to inadequate funding and the constantly escalating cost of attending college," said Hayden, a Gulf War veteran who used the MGIB .
Smith said that he and Evans began "laying the necessary groundwork" for the new legislation three weeks ago when the veterans panel included a funding hike for the Montgomery GI Bill in its recommendations to the House Budget Committee.
Dr . Lester Tenney worked in a coal mine for the Japanese company Mitsui from 1943 to 1945. Tenney did not receive compensation for his work, but instead was beaten whenever American forces won a victory against Japan.
Tenney, a U.S. National Guard sergeant, had been taken prisoner by the Japanese while defending the Philippines on April 9, 1942, and forced to walk 55 miles under inhuman conditions during the Bataan Death March. He eventually was shipped to Japan.
"I shoveled coal in Japan for almost three years," said Tenney. "I shoveled coal 12 hours a day. I was never paid and I never got proper tools and I never got medical care. I would like them to apologize to me. I would like to have them say to me: "We are sorry, sincerely sorry for what we did to you, how we deprived you of so much of life."
"I think also they should pay me for the work I performed for them," he said. "Anything else they want to do is fine, but that's what I'm looking for."
Tenney spoke March 22 at a press conference held by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Mike Honda, D-Calif ., to announce their introduction of the Justice for United States Prisoner of War Act of 2001 (H.R. 1198). As of March 22, the bill had 30 co-sponsors, including Reps . Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and David Bonior, D-Mich., Republican and Democratic party whips respectively.
"These American heroes don't seek any action or retaliation against the current Japanese government or against the Japanese people," said Rohrabacher. "They seek just compensation from the Japanese companies who profited from their suffering."
About 3,000 veterans who survived the Bataan Death March are still living, and would be able to sue the Japanese companies that forced them into labor if H.R. 1198 were to succeed in reversing a State Department interpretation of a 1951 peace treaty with Japan. The State Department claims the treaty prohibits lawsuits against private companies.
Tenney was one of three-dozen former POWs who filed suit in 1999 against the Japanese companies, which include well-known names like Mitsui & Co., Mitsubishi Corp. and Nippon Steel Corp. In September , U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco rejected their claims based on the State Department's interpretation of the treaty.
Tenney, an 82-year-old resident of La Jolla, Calif., was able to file suit because California enacted a law in 1999 extending the statute of limitations for forced labor compensation. But Walker accepted the State Department's contention that an article of the Treaty of Peace with Japan prohibits any claims filed by U.S. citizens, including former POWs.
"Japan is obligated"
Critics of the State Department's position, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, say that the treaty only prohibits suits against the Japanese government and not individual companies.
H.R. 1198 says: "Japan is obligated to extend the same more beneficial terms under the subsequent war claims settlement agreements with other countries." Essentially, the bill recognizes that the treaty obligates Japan to grant war claims to all 48 countries that signed the 1951 pact equal to any granted to any other nation.
"Records of our State Department show that at least six other nations have been granted more favorable treaty terms than those given to the United States," said Tenney in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last June 28.
Mitsui & Co., Ltd., still claims protection under the treaty. The company, which employs 10,000 people in 90 countries, claims the treaty prohibits lawsuits against corporations as well as the Japanese government. In addition, says Mitsui, the coal mine where Tenney was enslaved was under government control at the time. Mitsui's activities today include steel production and nuclear power plant maintenance.
Hatch has dismissed Mitsui's arguments and called the State Department's position "ridiculous." He criticized the Clinton administration for helping Holocaust victims who filed claims against German companies while acting against American POWs who filed claims against Japanese companies.
"This contrasting treatment raises the legitimate questions of whether this administration has a consistent policy governing whether and how to weigh-in during these World War II-era cases," said Hatch at the July 28 Senate hearing. "From a moral perspective, the claims of those forced into labor by private German companies and private Japanese companies appear to be of similar merit, yet they have spurred different responses from the administration."
Honda, a Japanese-American , helped Rohrabacher draft H.R. 1198. He said he is motivated by "deeply personal" reasons.
"During World War II , when I was very young, my family and I were sent to an internment camp in Colorado . The redress movement, which focused the United States on coming to terms with the injustices of the internment of its own citizens, shaped my desire to set the record straight for our POWs," said Honda.
The State Department told Judge Walker last year that such a move "would be an act of extreme bad faith ."
As the new senior Democratic member of the health subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I am proud to be an original cosponsor of H.R. 936, the "Heather French Homeless Veterans Assistance Act of 2000." The bill, named for Miss America 2000, an articulate and dedicated spokeswoman for homeless veterans, provides a comprehensive approach for addressing a difficult issue. I have been a long-term advocate of VA's homeless programs and will work closely with veterans and Congress to win enactment of this important legislation.
Recent statistics indicate that as many as a third of the homeless on the street at any given time are veterans . That means that veterans are over-represented within the ranks of the American homeless . The Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups (CHALENG ) for Veterans report estimated that 344,983 veterans were homeless (and received services from some source) at some point during 1999.
While the issue is one of national importance, there is no doubt that the problem is especially compelling in parts of the country, like mine, with the largest numbers of homeless veterans . Southern California and Nevada (VISN 22) has the largest number of homeless veterans in the country--homelessness is far from an abstraction for the almost 52,000 veterans there.
I believe that H.R. 936, introduced by the veterans affairs committee's senior Democrat, Lane Evans (Ill.), offers an expansive and comprehensive approach that can and will allow us to address this national shame by ending homelessness among the nation's veterans within a decade.
Our nation has a long history of responding to the needs of disabled and indigent veterans. The first veterans program, the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, was established in Togus, Maine, in the wake of the Civil War. As the department's "VA History In Brief" states, "[P]rimarily providing room and board, these homes also gave incidental medical care to disabled and indigent veterans, regardless of whether their disabilities were service-connected."
While programs for veterans have certainly evolved over time, the goal of treating veterans left in the wake of battle has remained the same. And few programs target the poorest, and perhaps most vulnerable, veterans as effectively as the VA's homeless programs. While it is clear that VA has long recognized custodial care of certain veterans as part of its charge, it was not until the mid-1990s that then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown officially recognized homelessness as a fifth mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Unfortunately, even this strong support was not sufficient to respond to the growing tide of need among homeless veterans. It was not until the late 1980s that VA recognized the distinct issue of homelessness within the veterans population with specific programs to meet its needs . Homelessness became an issue as psychiatric institutions began to discharge some their most seriously ill patients to inadequate community resources in a process called "deinstitutionalization" a decade earlier.
Some VA medical centers continued , as increasingly rare "safety net" providers, to offer long-term placement for the most seriously impaired veterans. While VA's long-term neuropsychiatric hospitals were sometimes criticized for "warehousing" veterans, they were, at least , fulfilling the basic needs of those under their care.
At the same time, VA also began to focus its long-standing domiciliary program on meeting the needs of the homeless with less-intensive psychiatric needs. These programs were meant to provide a sheltered environment for substance abuse recovery or psychiatric rehabilitative care. They also provided simple custodial care to veterans incapable of meeting their own self-care needs.
Then in the mid-to-late 1990s , VA began to "right-size" its mental health program. Most "acute care facilities" closed their psychiatric beds to all except veterans actively dangerous to themselves or others. A few long-term care facilities still offer care for the chronically mentally ill, but even this care is for much shorter stays and focused on medication management and discharge.
Since the mid-1990s, VA has closed more than half of its psychiatric beds. In fiscal 1996, VA had a census of about 14,000; in fiscal 2001, it projected it would have a census of 3,586 (including the care it pays for in non-VA settings).
In order to avoid the same problems that accompanied the earlier period of "deinstitutionalization," this shift of site should have been accompanied by a shift of resources into community - and home-based settings. This has not been the case. VA's Committee on Seriously Mentally Ill Veterans has complained that resources have shifted away from vital mental health programs and have not been refocused on effective community programs .
The damage continues today . VA network directors have reduced programs for substance abuse treatment, seriously mentally ill veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder treatment and homeless veterans across the country.
The Heather French Homeless Veterans Assistance Act is attempting to right the wrong that has led to the virtual obliteration of VA's mental health infrastructure in many areas across the country . These are the programs homeless veterans need to pull their lives together--to relearn basic living skills--including relating to others. Sadly, chemical dependency, social isolation, outdated or forgotten vocational skills, mental illness and chronic physical illness are often associated with homelessness and compound the problems veterans confront in getting their lives back on track.
VA clearly cannot solve the problem of homelessness alone. Fortunately, the agency has teamed up with effective community providers who also know how to get the job done.
H.R. 936 requires resurrection of the Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness--a group of federal agencies that used to meet to discuss effective means of addressing this difficult problem together . It requires VA to coordinate outreach strategies and programs with other groups that may be able to address the needs of the homeless. It also seeks the guidance of experts in the field by creating an advisory group to specifically address the needs of homeless veterans.
I have seen effective programs at work and know that they can turn veterans' lives around. My friend Al Pavich, the director of Vietnam Veterans of San Diego, has created programs like the successful "stand downs" that have been emulated across the country to bring basic services to veterans in an accessible and non-threatening environment.
Vietnam Veterans of San Diego also operates effective residential treatment programs, partially funded by VA. Al likes to refer to the veterans treated in his programs as "miracles." They truly are. The Heather French Homeless Veterans Act can help us create a few more miracles for our veterans.
Contact your representative or senator about supporting H.R. 936 to help ensure that America's homeless veterans are not left behind. To learn more about the bill, see the House Committee on Veterans Affairs website at http://veterans.house.gov/democratic/welcome.htm.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif ., is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
proposed $51.7 billion allocation for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the
Department of Veterans Affairs predicts increasing processing times for
In fiscal 2002, the average claim is projected to take 273 days to handle, compared to 202 days this fiscal year.
But VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said April 9 that agency had begun immediate efforts to stem the swelling tide of backlogged claims.
The proposed health care budget, Principi said, contains some good news for veterans. It calls for an extra $196 million for long-term care and an additional $164 million to improve patient access to VA facilities. He said the VA's goal in the next fiscal year is for patients to receive appointments for primary care and non-urgent care within 30 days of requests and to be seen within 20 minutes of scheduled appointments.
The budget also includes money for increased staffing to allow the VA to handle a projected workload triggered by legislation passed last year.
One new law boosts the help that the VA can provide for veterans applying for disability compensation and pensions . The new "duty to assist" rules will require the VA to review 98,000 cases previously denied, plus another 244,000 cases that were pending when the legislation passed.
A VA decision in January authorizing service-connection for Vietnam veterans with diabetes has caused a dramatic increase in its workload, according to the agency. About 105,000 applications for disability compensation are expected in fiscal 2002 under the new policy.
Principi said the administration's fiscal 2002 budget request is based on three priorities: improving the timeliness and accuracy of claims processing, ensuring that veterans receive high-quality health care and maintaining veterans' cemeteries as national shrines.
The proposed $22.3 billion for the VA health-care system includes nearly $900 million collected from third-party health insurers and co-payments from veterans. This is a $1 billion increase in estimated spending for health care compared to this year's budget.
The VA said the budget would enable it to provide medical care to 3.8 million veterans and to accomodate 41 million outpatient visits and 681,000 hospitalizations. (The budget projections assume that 65,000 of the 240,000 military retirees over age 64 currently enrolled in the VA health care system will switch to the recently expanded Defense Department TriCare program.
A requested $360 million- -$10 million above this year's budget--would support 3,163 VA employees engaged in research projects, notably at centers specializing in Gulf War illnesses, diabetes , Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, prostate cancer, depression, environmental hazards and women's issues.
The administration seeks $28.3 billion for compensation, pension and other VA-administered entitlement programs . This includes an estimated cost-of-living adjustment of 2.5 percent in compensation and pension programs that would take effect Dec. 1, 2001. The actual amount will be determined according to the Consumer Price Index.
The budget includes $121 million, $12 million more than the current level, for the VA's national cemeteries . It doubles to $10 million spending for maintenance and to upgrade them to a level "befitting their status as national shrines."
The budget includes funding for land acquisitions for new cemeteries in the Detroit, Pittsburgh and Sacramento areas; the development of a new cemetery in Atlanta, the design of a new cemetery in Miami and columbaria expansion and improvements at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, Mass., and the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Wash.
The VA is replacing its accounting and logistics computer systems with coreFLS, the "core financial and logistics system," with existing funds.
The budget requests $441 million for VA construction programs including the cemetery projects and an emergency electrical project at Miami, Fla. Also, $115 million is sought to begin implementing the VA's Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) recommendations.
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Last July, the VA mailed notified 270,000 veterans by mail of outstanding debts, providing local contacts and encouraging them to request hearings or make payment arrangements to avoid further action.
Some 243,000 veterans reportedly failed to respond.
This month, the Treasury Department started sending letters reminding the 243,000 delinquent veterans that money can be taken from other federal checks to settle their debts, reportedly valued at more than $75 million and averaging about $300 per veteran.
Treasury also is telling them about a big stick the department is prepared to use: For the first time, portions of monthly Social Security checks can be withheld by the department to offset money owed by veterans to the VA.
Many of the veterans receiving the notices have been treated at VA medical facilities for conditions unrelated to their military service. They are responsible for making co-payments for that care , which includes prescribed medications.
Some disability compensation and VA pension recipients also could have payments withheld because of debts, typically overpayment of benefits.
According to Treasury officials , veterans affected by the withholding will receive at least $750 of each month's Social Security payment, and only 15 percent of amounts greater than $750 would be withheld. Veterans, of course, can halt any withholding of Social Security or other federal payments by voluntarily settling their debts with the VA.
Deductions are to begin this spring, according to Treasury officials. The department will notify veterans, in writing, twice--at 60-day and 30-day intervals--about anticipated amounts to be withheld . The letters will include the name of the VA offices to which money is owed and contacts for answers to any questions.
Income Tax Returns
The Treasury Department also can withhold money from income tax refunds and federal retired pay (but not supplemental security income).
Treasury officials say the department has contingency plans to dock federal retired pay, military pay or military retired pay, certain Railroad Retirement Board benefits, black lung payments (Part B) and other federal payments made to individuals.
Veterans will be notified before any new offsets are put into effect, officials said.
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Secretary Principi Vows 'Highest Priority' Commitment To Improving and Integrating VA IT
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Steve Buyer (R-IN) praised the "stern but welcome" vow of VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi to resolve the agency's computer security leaks endangering the privacy of veterans.
At the first Subcommittee hearing of the 107th Congress, Chairman Buyer and Subcommittee Ranking Democrat Member Vic Snyder (D-AR) wanted to know what the VA had to show for its costly upgrade in information technology (IT). Buyer gave the VA six months to supply an answer.
The VA has invested $1 billion dollars on IT enhancements in each of the last five years and expects the expenditure to increase to $2.1 billion in the year 2005. But since 1998 the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has reported continued agency-wide information security weaknesses and lack of IT coordination among VA's various administrations.
Buyer said information technology weaknesses revealed by GAO and VA's Inspector General affected such areas as financial management, health care delivery, benefits payments, life insurance services, home mortgage loan guarantees, and the assets associated with those operations. Buyer's concerns are shared by full Committee Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ), House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), and the Bush Administration. Armey has expressed concern that VA still cannot guarantee veterans applying for benefits that such personal information as disabilities and mental testing won't be exposed.
"This privacy issue is not going to go away," Buyer warned.
"Mr. Secretary, I realize you have inherited a weak hand, but I have hope that under your leadership, there will be swift improvement in your IT shop," said Buyer, who called for continued scrutiny of VA's IT system by the GAO and the VA's own IG.
Buyer and several witnesses agreed that the VA might consider an "information czar, " a chief information officer (CIO) strong enough to solve the problem without being dictatorial. Secretary Principi introduced Bruce A. Brody, the new Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity, who will work for the CIO. He also repeated a prior pledge that he would not "spend one dime" on new technology until the VA implemented an integrated information system.
"I will convene a panel of world-renowned experts in systems architecture to team with our key business unit decision makers in each of VA's Administration and Staff offices to develop a comprehensive Integrated Enterprise Architecture Plan," Principi said. "Developing this plan has my highest priority."
VA Inspector General Richard J. Griffin said the agency needed to shorten its timelines for addressing "security vulnerabilities" such as unauthorized access and misuse of sensitive automated information. Griffin's recommendations included more centralized information security oversight and minimum acceptable security standards for VA's desktop computers.
The Subcommittee also heard from Michael Schlacta, Jr., VA's Assistant Inspector General for Auditing; Dr. David L. McClure, Director of the GAO's Information Technology Management Issues; Karl Ware, Executive Vice President of Operations, BioNetrix Systems Corporation; Ken Brandt, Management Director of Tiger Testing; and Scott C. Sherman, Director of Advanced Technology Architecture for EMC2 Corporation.
This week, about 1.4 million military retirees who are 65 or older become eligible for Tricare pharmacy benefits. The new pharmacy program was approved by Congress last year.
The program will provide uniformed service retirees, their family members and survivors with prescription drug coverage with minimal co-payments through a mail-order service, the Tricare network and non-network retail pharmacies. Retirees also may continue to obtain prescriptions free at pharmacies on military bases.
"I encourage those Tricare beneficiaries who may qualify for the pharmacy program to follow the necessary procedures to participate," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said. Moran suggested that retirees call 1-877-363-6337 for information about the Tricare pharmacy program.
In October, a new entitlement program, Tricare for Life, will begin. It will make Tricare available as a secondary payer to Medicare and eliminate most co-payments and deductibles. To be eligible, retirees must subscribe to Medicare Part B coverage.
Contact: David W.
WASHINGTON-The $1.9 trillion federal budget outline awaiting final action in Congress is being hailed by the million-member Disabled American Veterans (DAV) as a welcome first step toward honoring America's commitment to veterans.
As approved by the Senate, amendments would add $2.6 billion to the President's proposed budget for veterans health care and other discretionary programs and services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Another amendment, adopted by voice vote, would provide $2.9 billion in budget authority in fiscal year 2002 and up to $40 billion over the next 10 years to cover costs associated with allowing the concurrent receipt of military longevity retirement pay and veterans disability compensation.
"The Senate has demonstrated its commitment to our nation's veterans," said DAV National Commander Armando C. Albarran. "These proposed funding increases in the federal budget are an important and welcome first step toward ensuring that sick and disabled veterans will receive top-quality health care and timely, accurate decisions on their claims for disability compensation."
By a vote of 53 to 46, Senators adopted an amendment offered by Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) to add $1.7 billion for veterans health care to the President's proposed $1 billion increase for VA discretionary spending, for a total increase of $2.7 billion above the current level.
Senators also adopted 98 to 1, an amendment offered by Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) providing another $967 million for VA discretionary spending.
The concurrent receipt amendment, offered by Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would remove a major stumbling block to legislation allowing veterans with at least 20 years of military service to collect their full longevity pay and VA disability compensation. Under current law, military longevity retired pay is reduced by an amount equal to a veteran's VA disability compensation.
The budget resolution merely provides a broad outline of tax and spending goals for fiscal year 2002, which begins Oct. 1. Actual funding levels for the VA and the rest of the government will be set by appropriations bills later.
"The congressional budget plan is only the first step," said Commander Albarran. "The DAV urges members of Congress to support adequate appropriations for veterans health care and provide the resources the VA needs to hire and train additional personnel to improve the quality and timeliness of the claims adjudication system. Congress must now take decisive action to appropriate those funds needed to honor America's commitment to veterans."
The million-member Disabled American Veterans, a non-profit organization founded in 1920 and chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1932, represents 2.3 million disabled veterans. It is dedicated to one, single purpose: building better lives for our nation's disabled veterans and their families.
Help to veterans available on line
Veterans wanting to learn about a variety of benefits provided by different agencies of the state of Texas can turn to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The agency's new State Benefits Reference System is a computerized inventory that enables VA employees to link veterans to services ranging from special vehicle license plates to property tax exemptions.
A Web site also is being developed, officials said.
Veterans should contact the nearest VA regional office to learn more. For this area, that office is in Houston and can be reached at (800) 827-1000.
Information also is available at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital in San Antonio at 7400 Merton Minter. Call 617-5300 and ask for a patient representative.
OPM to Offer Peek at
Insurance Proposal for Long-Term Care
Tomorrow, the Office of Personnel Management gives federal employees, members of the armed forces and retirees their first chance to look at its plans for providing long-term care insurance.
OPM will post a "proposed product design" containing definitions, benefit options and program features on its Internet site, www.opm.gov/ insure/ltc, after the start of the business day tomorrow. The proposal represents the first step in setting up the program, which is scheduled to begin providing coverage in October 2002.
The insurance, which will be offered to as many as 20 million Americans, seems likely to develop into one of the largest benefit programs created for employees and retirees in decades. The program, approved by Congress last year, will offer numerous government workers a way to meet essential long-term care needs and, perhaps, avoid depleting their assets.
Long-term care insurance helps pay for nursing and custodial assistance for people with chronic illnesses or disabilities that limit their ability to carry out daily tasks, such as getting in and out of bed, eating and bathing.
Tomorrow's release of information starts a months-long effort by OPM to educate employees and retirees about the benefits and costs of the insurance. Employees and retirees will be asked to think about what type of care they will need, where they expect to receive their care (at home, assisted living facility, elder care center or nursing home) and how much of that care they can pay for on their own and how much should be covered by insurance.
OPM officials hope to design a flexible program that will allow employees and retirees to meet their needs, Frank D. Titus, OPM's assistant director for long-term care, said at a briefing Friday. He cautioned that components of the program may change during the year as OPM obtains feedback from employee and retiree groups and the insurance industry.
On its Web site, OPM will provide information about what kinds of medical information the program will seek from applicants, the program's tax advantages and criteria for receiving benefits. Retirees, for example, will find the proposed program requires them to submit more information about their health, medications and treatments than it requests from active-duty employees and their spouses.
As proposed, the program will permit the choice of a weekly benefit, from $400 a week up to $2,000 a week, in $50 increments. Enrollees also will choose the length of the policy they want, such as a three-year term, a five-year term or lifetime coverage.
The maximum weekly benefit and the length of the policy will create what Titus called a "pool of money," and the program will pay benefits until the money is exhausted. For example, he said, a person selecting a weekly benefit of $700 and a three-year policy would build a fund worth $109,200. Because the money could be consumed at different rates, depending on the type of care, some people will find that their money outlasts their policy term, he said.
Titus suggested that the program would encourage employees to choose "compound inflation protection" that will automatically increase weekly benefits by a specified percentage, probably 5 percent, every year.
Participants will pay the full cost of premiums. They will be based on age -- the younger you are when you enroll, the lower the cost -- and on coverage choices -- the higher the benefit or the longer the policy, the higher the premiums.
The cost of premiums, of course, will likely influence how many government workers and retirees take advantage of the long-term care program. A sampling of individual policies with three years of benefits showed that, on average, a 45-year-old could expect to pay about $70 a month, a person at 55 might pay almost $90 monthly, and a 65-year-old might pay $165 per month.
Titus said estimates of premium costs for the government program would not be available until later this year, when OPM selects one or more companies to provide coverage.
OPM, he said, "is looking for the best product at the most competitive price."
No Federal Diary
I'll be away on spring break this week. The column will resume next Sunday.
Stephen Barr's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
By Sig Christenson
His dad became known for breaking a pledge to not raise taxes. Now, some veterans say, President Bush is following in his father's footsteps.
At issue, old soldiers and Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez said Tuesday, is a Bush campaign promise to boost veterans health care programs.
They say Bush's proposed $1 billion increase for VA hospitals and benefits is a break in his vow, made at a veterans convention last summer, that "help is on the way."
"We've got to take care of veterans, we've got to take care of our national defense, and he's not doing that," said Rodriguez, D-San Antonio and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "His first priority, and his only priority so far, has been tax cuts."
Both the White House and Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, defended Bush's proposed $51 billion Department of Veterans Affairs budget, saying it fulfills his commitment to those who once served in uniform. The budget includes $23.4 billion in discretionary budget authority, a $1 billion increase over the current fiscal year.
"Bush promised the military an arm and a leg," said Korean and Vietnam War veteran Donald L. Nunley, 67, of Canyon Lake. "Now he's backing off from his promises."
The American Legion has called for a $1.75 billion rise in discretionary spending — money earmarked for VA hospitals and the processing of benefits. A coalition of veterans groups wants $3.4 billion, while the House Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously recommended a $2.1 billion increase.
American Legion national spokesman Steve Thomas stopped short of saying Bush has broken his promise to veterans. But he suggested the president's word would be kept — with or without his support.
"We're going to go to Congress to get the money to assure that the president can keep his promises to veterans," he said.
The call for more VA spending comes amid a hiring freeze in the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, which has facilities in San Antonio, Kerrville, Corpus Christi, Laredo, McAllen and Victoria.
As the system brings its costs in line with its $272 million budget, Medal of Honor recipient and VA counselor Richard "Louis" Rocco said veterans wait as long as nine months before receiving treatment from various specialty physicians.
South Texas Health Care System spokeswoman Diana Struski said urgent cases are seen at once, and that other patients are seen "in the medically appropriate time" specified by their doctors.
Pharmacy costs have jumped 15 percent, and the region's VA facilities have seen 4,000 more patients this year amid a shortage of nurses, Struski said.
Syndicated columnist David Hackworth, a highly decorated retired Army colonel, called the VA "inflexible and incompetent" and said it needs strong leadership.
"But Rodriguez pointed to Bush's VA budget plan as a major issue. In a meeting with a dozen or so veterans at VFW Post 9186, he said the number of service-connected claims received by the VA has skyrocketed in the past few months.
VA Secretary Anthony Principi has sought to fix the problem by earmarking $50 million to hire 863 adjusters to clear a backlog of disability and pension claims, but Rodriguez said more money is needed.
Bonilla, a member of the House Armed Services defense appropriations subcommittee, praised Bush for creating a "pro-veteran" budget, one that offers a "significant increase" over last year.
"The president definitely has a commitment to all those who are serving now and to those who have served in the past," White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said.
Those at the VFW hall, however, expressed skepticism.
"I'm not angry, but I'm waiting to see what develops," said retired Air Force Master Sgt. G.R. "Jerry" Wright, 67, of Somerset who voted for Bush.
VFW Post Commander Lonnie Garza, another Bush backer, said he had hoped the president would keep his promises but added: "I have to put a question mark on that."
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