The House Veterans Affairs Committee recently approved the “GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act” (H.R. 357), sponsored by Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (Florida) and Ranking Member Mike Michaud (Maine). The bill requires colleges and universities eligible for GI Bill education benefits to offer in-state tuition rates to veterans even if they are not residents of the state where the school is located.
“The men and women who served this nation did not just defend the citizens of their home states, but the citizens of all 50 states. As such, the educational benefits they receive from the taxpayers should reflect that,” said Chairman Miller. “By offering in-state tuition, service members can attend an institution of higher learning that meets their specific needs without worrying about higher costs which non-residents often must pay.”
“Because of the nature of military service, veterans often have a difficult time establishing residency for purposes of obtaining in-state tuition rates,” added Ranking Member Michaud. “This bill will address this problem and ensure that veterans can access the affordable higher education options they have earned.”
The bill is being considered by the full House at press time. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center at www.fra.org to ask their legislators to support this legislation and the Senate companion bill (S. 257).
Rep. Chris Gibson (New York) recently introduced the “Blue Water Navy Ship Accountability Act” (H.R. 1494) that requires the United States Army and DoD’s Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC) to do a comprehensive search to determine which ships operated on the inland waterways of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975. Service members serving on those ships would be eligible for a presumption of Agent Orange exposure when filing disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Earlier this year, Gibson also introduced the “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act” (H.R. 543) that clarifies a presumption for ailments associated with exposure to Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War. The bill would authorize those who served off the coast of Vietnam, so-called “blue water vets,” to claim disability benefits from the VA.
FRA believes Congress should recognize that these veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and authorize VA presumption associated with this exposure. Shipmates are strongly urged to use the FRA Action Center (www.fra.org) to ask their representative to support these important proposals.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) recently conducted another oversight hearing on the disability claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Committee members voiced concerns about the scope of the backlog, employee training and performance reviews, and how VA plans to justify lengthy wait times for decisions to veterans. Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey spoke about the 34,834 claims (that had been pending for two years or longer) that had been adjudicated within the previous 30 days and how the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) was on track to finish an additional 32,000 by the end of June.
To help address the situation, HVAC Chairman Jeff Miller (Florida) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (California) introduced legislation (H.R. 2189) that would establish and charge an independent task force to analyze VA’s claims processing system, examine the root cause of the backlog and provide solutions for ending it by 2015. Chairman Miller wants outside help from the private sector and the VSO community in working toward a solution.
Ranking Member Michael Michaud (Maine) expressed skepticism about eliminating the backlog on the legislation’s timeline. “In April 2011, it took an average of 182 days for VA to complete a claim. Today, it takes an average of 279 days. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has set a goal of processing all compensation and pension claims received in 125 days at 98-percent accuracy by 2015. VA is planning to increase staff, undertake claims processing initiatives, and is in the process of rolling out the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), a business transformation effort that is projected to result in a paperless environment for claims processing and benefits delivery,” said Michaud. “But there is no question that VA must do better, and the numbers don’t add up for VA to get there by 2015.”
FRA is closely tracking the claims backlog and believes the situation undermines the country’s solemn pledge to properly care for disabled veterans.
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TMA Asks Beneficiaries to Update DEERS Record
TRICARE Management Activity (TMA) reminds beneficiaries to keep their Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) information current. This means making sure all personal information — phone numbers, postal and e-mail addresses — is up to date. Also, just like when moving, sponsors who experience any of the following life events must update their DEERS records as soon as possible:
Making changes to DEERS information is easy and can be done online at milConnect (www.dmdc.osd.mil/milconnect), by fax or mail, or in person at the nearest uniformed services identification card office. Many DEERS updates require supporting documentation, such as marriage licenses, birth or death certificates, Medicare cards or DD-214 discharge forms. Be sure to bring copies of all paperwork that might be needed when updating DEERS information. For more information on how to update DEERS records, including questions about TRICARE eligibility, please visit www.tricare.mil/DEERS.