January 2, 2003

Combat Disabled Special Payments Update
The fiscal '03 defense act established special payments to begin on June 1 for certain combat and combat-related disabled veterans. In preparation, representatives from The Military Coalition, the National Association for Uniformed Services and the National Military Veterans Alliance have met with pay officials from the Defense Department. During the meeting, representatives presented issues for DoD to include in planning for the program. All agreed that many details must be worked out to ensure that payments are consistent between the services and for members who have retired. 


By Suzanne Gamboa 
Associated Press 

Web Posted : 01/17/2003 12:00 AM 

WASHINGTON The Veterans Affairs Department will suspend enrollment today for higher-income vets seeking health care for nonmilitary-related ailments ranging from routine care to heart disease and diabetes.
The suspension, scheduled to last through 2003, goes against VA policy set in 1996 when Congress ordered the agency to open health care to nearly all veterans. 

The suspension could affect as many as 3,000 veterans in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Laredo, the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the rest of South Texas, said Creager Brown, a spokesman for the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.

"We estimate that the pool to be drawn from that could meet this category of veterans will be about 3,000," Brown said. "The number could be much smaller."

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said the decision was disappointing but "underscores the need to develop long-term solutions to VA's health care funding problems."

VA Secretary Anthony Principi said the agency has been struggling to provide adequate health care to a rapidly rising number of veterans. 

The VA's patient population ballooned from 2.9 million in 1996 to 6.8 million today, he said.

"People might say, 'Well Mr. Secretary, what kind of message does this send to people who may deploy to the Persian Gulf?'" Principi said.

"I have a son in the Gulf, who may deploy to Iraq, who may fight a war if the president chooses. I think it sends a positive message that the VA is there for those who are disabled in uniform. 

"The VA is there for men and women who come back and within the first two years need VA health care."

Ronald Conley, American Legion national commander, agreed with Principi that Congress hasn't provided the agency enough money to fulfill its mandate to provide care to nearly all veterans.

Principi said he expects President Bush to propose a 7.7 percent increase in the VA's health care budget for 2004, but he said it wouldn't be enough.

The enrollment suspension applies to those considered the lowest priority for benefits, veterans with the highest incomes and no military service-related health problems, known as Category 8 veterans.

The 6.8 million veterans already enrolled in the VA, including 1.4 million Category 8 veterans, wouldn't be affected by Principi's decision. The VA estimates that about 164,000 Category 8 veterans would have enrolled this year.

About 18.2 million U.S. veterans don't use VA health care.

Principi, mandated by law to review enrollments every year, had warned Congress last session that he might be forced to limit enrollments if lawmakers didn't approve a proposed $1,500 deductible for higher-income veterans.

Congress balked at the proposal, which some veterans groups blasted.

Principi said the VA needs the enrollment "timeout" to get a handle on its current workload and reduce waiting times that can be as long as six months.

Sen. John Rockefeller, outgoing Democratic chairman of Senate Veterans Affairs committee, agreed.

"The answer is providing the necessary funding for VA, and the administration is going to have to make that a priority."

Meanwhile, he said he and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson would try to work through regulations to allow the VA to be reimbursed for services provided to Medicare-eligible veterans, generally those over 65 years old.

Principi said he hopes the enrollment limit and Medicare changes will help meet an end-of-the-year goal for veterans to wait no longer than 30 days to see a primary care physician and slightly longer for a specialist. 

January 17. 2003

Military Officers Association supports class act rally.
The Military Officers Association of America (formerly TROA) has encouraged its members to participate in a Class Act Group rally on Feb. 12 in Washington. On that day, the group's attorney, retired Air Force Colonel Bud Day, a Medal of Honor holder, plans to file an appeal to a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The appeals court had ruled that the government did not have to honor promises of lifetime medical care for certain military retirees with at least 20 years of service and their spouses. The rally schedule calls for assembling at 10:00 a.m. at the corner of Constitution Ave. and 1st Street NE, followed by marching to the front of the Supreme Court building. MOAA has stated that it will file a "friend of the court" brief in support of the Class Act Group's appeal. 

January 17, 2003

Legislation to Watch
The 108th Congress has started a flood of new bills affecting Armed Forces News readers. Many are new versions of bills that died when the 107th Congress failed to act on them. For example the new S-19 would authorize full concurrent receipt of military retired pay and disability payments awarded by the Department of Veterans Affairs; increase funding for veterans' health care programs; eliminate the requirement that patients see a VA doctor before obtaining a prescription;restore income tax deductions for National Guard and Reserve members for military-related travel expenses that are not reimbursed by the government; relax rules for members to qualify for capital-gains tax exclusions when they sell a home; and lengthen filing deadlines for members deployed on peacekeeping operations. Other examples: 

HR-303 would authorize full concurrent receipt of military retired pay and VA compensation. 

HR-65 would authorize credits for premiums paid by military retirees for Medicare Part B. 

HR-58 and companion bill S-56 would restore health care coverage to retired members.

HR-331 would authorize retired pay for Reserve component retirees regardless of age. 

HR-36 would prevent termination of DIC payments to a surviving spouse who remarries after age 55.

H.J.Res. 4 would propose a constitutional amendment authorizing Congress to prohibit the physical desecration of the U.S. flag. 

HR-163 and companion bill, S-89, would launch a draft of men and women for military or civilian service. 

January 20, 2003

The new year brings limited enrollment in VA health care for higher-income vets. 
The Veterans Affairs Department has announced that higher income vets who are NOT suffering from health problems directly caused by their military service will not be allowed to enroll in its health care program through the rest of this year. This change is expected to affect about 164,000 veterans. Vets already signed up for the program will not be affected. 

Last year VA Secretary Anthony Principi told Congress he might need to take such action if lawmakers sisn't approve a higher deductible for nets with higher incomes. Principi says the enrollment freeze will give the Department a chance to reduce waiting times for current participants. His goal is that vets will wait no more than a month to see a primary care doctor. 

Principi said he expects President Bush to propose a 7.7 percent increase in the VA's health care budget for 2004, but even that, he said, would not be enough. 


January 24, 2003

American Legion commander Ronald F. Conley has labeled VA Secretary Anthony Principi's announcement to suspend new VA health care enrollments for Priority Group 8 veterans (previous item) "unacceptable." He stated that the administration is sending the message that these veterans are not a priority at all, even if they have health insurance that VA can bill for the cost of their medical treatment. He added that VA health care is not free to all veterans, and that the income threshold that determines whether someone belongs in Priority Group 8 is so low that no one can say, with a straight face, that all these veterans are well-off.  "Here's a better idea," he stated. "Instead of squeezing the system to meet the budget, why not make the budget fit the rising demand for VA health care?"

January 24, 2003

On Jan. 17, Veterans Affairs secretary Anthony J. Principi announced two sweeping changes to the overloaded VA medical care system. First, he suspended new enrollments for veterans in Priority Group 8. This group, the lowest priority, includes higher income veterans who have not been awarded a service-connected disability. Priority 8 veterans already enrolled will be grandfathered and allowed to continue in the system. Second, Principi is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to determine how to give Priority 8 veterans aged 65 or older access to the "VA+Choice Medicare" plan. VA would participate in the plan as a Medicare+Choice provider, and eligible veterans with Medicare Parts A and B could use their Medicare benefits to obtain care from VA. In return, VA would receive payments from a private health plan contracted with Medicare. The plan could be effective this year.

Asscociated Press 
January 24, 2003

Web Posted : 01/24/2003 12:00 AM 

 WASHINGTON Researchers have found a link between a type of leukemia and Vietnam soldiers exposed to herbicides like Agent Orange, prompting the Veterans Affairs Department to announce it will extend benefits to veterans with the illness.
The veterans diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, would start receiving improved benefits, such as disability compensation and priority health care services, in about a year, Secretary Anthony Principi said Thursday.

"It's sad that we have to presume service connection, because we know that (veterans) have cancer that may have been caused by their battlefield service. But it's the right thing to do," Principi said.

Veterans Affairs expects to find about 500 new cases of CLL a year among Vietnam veterans, spokesman Phil Budahn said. About 2.6 million people served in Vietnam during the war and most still are alive.

There are 10,000 Vietnam veterans receiving disability pay for other illnesses related to exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the war, Veterans Affairs said.

The Institute of Medicine, which re-examined past research on cancer rates in agricultural workers and farm community residents, announced Thursday that it had found the link between the form of leukemia and Vietnam herbicides.

"It's just one more indication that service on the battlefield exposes men and women to dangers beyond bullets, shrapnel and missiles," said Principi, who requested the review. "Environmental hazards are as worrisome and deadly as some of the more common forms of battlefield injury."

U.S. troops sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over parts of South Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and '70s to clear dense jungle. Some veterans reported a variety of health problems shortly after returning from the war.

Some forms of cancer, Type 2 diabetes and birth defects in veterans' children already are considered associated with herbicide exposures during the war. But it has been difficult to research the problem because no one knows how much chemicals troops were exposed to, the Institute of Medicine said.

By connecting the defoliant and CLL, the Institute of Medicine altered its own previous finding that not enough scientific evidence existed to determine whether the two were associated. The institute is part of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previously, researchers lumped CLL with other forms of leukemia when looking at cancer rates among Vietnam veterans. 

However, this time the scientists examined rates of CLL separately, said Dr. Paul Engstrom, a member of the review committee and a vice president with Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. 


January 30, 2003


The Military Officers Association of America (formerly The Retired Officers Association) is conducting a survey to determine which areas of the country have the most severe problems in gaining access to treatment under Tricare Standard (not Tricare for Life). MOAA wants to present specifics to lawmakers and DoD officials for correction. The association has advised that it is seeking information about how difficult it is to find Tricare providers, and not information about problems with specific providers or individual claims issues. In addition, conditions reported should have occurred within the last 12 months. The survey is open to anybody interested in reporting Tricare Standard access problems.