Under pressure from lawmakers and disabled veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs canceled plans to review the paperwork of 72,000 disability cases involving awards for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The problems with these files appear to be administrative in nature, such as missing documents, and not fraud,” said R. James Nicholson, secretary of veterans affairs. “In the absence of evidence of fraud, we’re not going to put our veterans through the anxiety of a widespread review of their disability claims.’’
Nicholson vowed instead to improve VA personnel training and to toughen administrative oversight of the PTSD claims process.
The VA had announced plans to review PTSD cases after its inspector general examined 2,100 randomly selected case files and found that a quarter of them lacked records to justify the claim. (See “Action in Congress: More Oppose PTSD Review,” December 2005, p. 25.)
Lawmakers and veterans groups hailed the decision to cancel the review.Cunningham Resigns in Disgrace
Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) on Nov. 28 resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to accepting more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors in return for steering contracts their way.
Cunningham had been a member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Cunningham, a retired naval aviator and Vietnam War ace, said he had violated the trust of friends, family, and colleagues and he knew that he had lost all respect.
As he announced his resignation from the House, in the middle of his eighth term, Cunningham said it was time to “face the consequences” of his actions. Those consequences could include up to 10 years in prison on charges of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion.
Empowered ... or Muzzled?Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, announced a new hearing schedule for veterans service organizations (VSOs) to comment on VA’s proposed budgets and priorities.
Hearings should occur soon after the budget arrives on Capitol Hill in February, Buyer argues, but the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars say the opposite is true.
These organizations contend Buyer wants to dampen their influence by eliminating the traditional presentation of veteran groups before a joint hearing of the House and Senate VA committees.
“I am extremely disappointed in Chairman Buyer’s latest effort to ignore the veterans service organizations,” said Thomas L. Bock, American Legion national commander. The VFW called Buyer’s plan “an absolute abhorrent idea” that will “drastically” limit the amount of time Congress and the Administration have to review recommendations.
Drug PricesVeterans service organizations in November blasted a decision by the VA to charge veterans $8, rather than $7, for each prescription filled by the VA for health conditions not linked to their time in service.
The $1 hike in co-payments for a 30-day supply of medicines prescribed through VA medical facilities begins Jan. 1. The 14 percent increase is the first change in VA drug prices in four years.
The VFW said the $1 increase in drug co-payments “came as a complete shock to America’s largest organization of combat veterans” and was “totally unacceptable.”
“A one dollar increase doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it could be devastating if you’re elderly and living on a fixed income and have 20 or more prescription refills every month,” said the VFW in a statement.
VA said the increase is required by law, based on changes in the Medical Consumer Price Index for prescription drugs. Annual out-of-pocket expenses for VA medicine will remain capped. The new cap will rise to $960 per year, up $120 from the previous level.
Where’s the Money?Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, said the Senate ignored budget rules as it voted for a host of unfunded military personnel initiatives.
McHugh said more than a dozen benefit improvements approved as floor amendments during the Senate’s final work on its defense authorization bill lacked funding. The Senate amendments would add “tens of billions of dollars” in spending to the budget’s 10-year horizon, he said, yet Senators don’t have “one cent” applied to the cost.
Where Congress Agrees ...As House-Senate conferees negotiated a final defense authorization bill this winter, they agreed on a handful of major personnel provisions that were included in both versions of the bill and were expected to pass into law. These included:
... And Where It DisagreesThe negotiators labored in December to reconcile House-Senate differences over long-sought benefit gains for disabled retirees, survivors, and Guard and Reserve members.Here is a rundown of the Senate initiatives that the House chose not to match in its own version of the bill:
Income Protection IssueAuthorization lawmakers also have to resolve the income protection issue for reserve component troops. Under a Senate plan, Reservists and National Guard members who are involuntarily mobilized and see a drop in pay from their civilian salaries would receive an income differential. Payments would occur if mobilized for more than 180 days of continuous active duty, or for 24 months out of the last 60, or if involuntarily mobilized less than six months after a previous mobilization.
The House passed a provision to allow income replacement if a reservist spent 18 months on continuous active duty. The House provision would be paid to very few reservists, said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), sponsor of the Senate substitute.
Durbin’s proposal would cost an additional $295 million over five years.
Eleventh-Hour AmendmentsHouse-Senate authorization conferees also have to iron out a series of 11th-hour amendments that Senators adopted in their version of the 2006 defense authorization bill. These amendments would authorize:
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Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who died fighting for their country, just like A1C William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman who took part in more than 250 rescue missions before he was killed at the age of 21. His selflessness and valor in the Vietnam War earned him an Air Force Cross and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.
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