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Feb 19

FRA Newbytes – February 19, 2016

FRA Newsbytes 02/26/16

FRA Newsbytes 02/19/16

In this issue:
Legislation to Streamline VA Claims Appeals Introduced
Extend Assistance for Military Widows
Veterans Bills Pass the House
IG Finds that some Suicide Hotline Calls Handled Improperly by VA
71st Anniversary of Marine Landings on Iwo Jima
WM 73rd Birthday


Legislation to Streamline VA Claims Appeals Introduced
Senator Dan Sullivan (Alaska) has introduced the “Express Appeals Act” (S. 2473) that would establish a new, voluntary five-year pilot program to help reduce the large backlog of disability claims appeals before the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The Senator said, “It is astonishing to me that an average veteran waits nearly 1,000 days—or almost three years—for the VA to resolve an appeal of one of their benefit decisions. Proud veterans across the U.S. … should not have to endure these absurd, multi-year wait times just to see their cases resolved.” The bill will create a pilot program to provide timely and accurate decisions on veterans’ appeals before the VBA.

Many disabled veterans who filed a claim and gone on to have the result adjudicated feel the VA has made a mistake; they should not be penalized by having to wait two or more years for an appeal to be complete. While the VA is making progress on reducing the overall disability claims backlog, veterans who file an appeal are too often waiting years to get a final determination. The legislation (S. 2473) intends to cut bureaucratic red tape, allowing disputes with the VA to be resolved in a much timelier manner. Additionally, entrance into this program would be completely voluntary, and a veteran would be able to exit the express appeals process at any time and re-enter the traditional pipeline at the end of the line with no adverse consequences.

With over 400,000 appeals clogged up in a growing backlog, it is imperative to move forward with commonsense reform proposals like this legislation FRA is grateful to Senator Sullivan for sponsoring this bill and Senators Bob Casey (Penn.), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) for co-sponsoring the bill at introduction. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their senators to support this important legislation to help disabled veterans.
Extend Assistance for Military Widows
Rep. Alan Grayson (Fla.) has introduced legislation (H.R. 4519) to provide a five-year extension of the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) provided to military widows and widowers. This legislation is needed because the SSIA is due to expire on October 1, 2017.

SSIA provides partial financial relief to widows and widowers of deceased military members in receipt of Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuities that are impacted by the required annuity offset for the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) paid by the VA. FRA has been actively pursuing repeal of this insidious “offset” for several years (HR 1594/S. 979), and SSIA has provided limited financial relief for those affected.

In related news, members of the FRA Legislative Team recently met with the Senate Armed Service, Personnel Subcommittee to discuss FRA’s 2016 Legislative Agenda, the Subcommittee’s plan for restructuring TRICARE, and to provide survey results from FRA’s online survey. These off-the-record meetings allow FRA staff to provide the enlisted sea service perspective to key staff members on Capitol Hill. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their legislators to support the SSIA extension (H.R. 4519) and repeal the unjust SBP/DIC offset (S. 979/H.R. 1594).
Veterans Bills Pass the House
The House of Representatives recently passed six veterans bills. These included: The Veterans Employment, Education, and Healthcare Improvement Act” (H.R. 3016); the “Construction Reform Act” (H.R. 3106); the “Career-Ready Student Veterans Act” (H.R. 2360); the “American Heroes COLA Act” (H.R. 677); the “Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act” (H.R. 3234); and the “Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act” (H.R. 2015). Many of these measures had been amended in committee to include provisions from other bills. Important provisions include automatic annual COLA adjustments for VA benefits, expanded canine therapy for veterans suffering with PTSI, extension of the Yellow Ribbon Program to Fry Scholarship beneficiaries, improved postnatal care for female veterans, the removal of the cap on VA home loan guarantees, and the requirement that VA accept private evidence for disability compensation claims. These bills now move to the Senate for consideration.
IG Finds that some Suicide Hotline Calls Handled Improperly by VA
According to a recent report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), more than 20 veterans, service members or family members who called the Veterans Crisis Line in FY 2014 were transferred to a voicemail system and their calls were never returned. The Veterans Crisis Line was established in 2007 to address the growing problem of suicide among veterans and service members. It has fielded more than 2 million calls and is credited with saving more than 50,000 lives. FRA’s own 2014 testimony divulged a Facebook post from a veteran on January 14, 2014 that claimed that they had called the hotline been put on hold for four minutes and 15 seconds and then the call was dropped. FRA passed on this information to VA staff, but never heard anything further. On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day, making suicide prevention a priority issue for FRA.

The number for the Veterans Crisis Line is 800-273-8255. Online chat is also available at http://www.veteranscrisisline.net or by texting 838255.
71st Anniversary of Marine Landings on Iwo Jima
On 19 February 1945, Marines landed on Iwo Jima to begin the largest all-Marine battle in history. It was also the bloodiest in Marine Corps history. The Marine Corps suffered over 23,300 casualties. The capture of Iwo Jima greatly increased allied air support and bombing operations against the Japanese home islands. Of the savage battle, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said, “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
WM 73rd Birthday
Last Saturday, February 13, marked the 73rd birthday of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. It was started in 1943 when the country was embroiled in World War II and women answered the call to serve, allowing more male Marines to go to the front lines.