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Washington Update for week of 9/25/2017

TREA: The Enlisted Association's Washington Update

 

 

TREA: The Enlisted Association's Washington Update

 

 

TREA Fights to Save Servicemembers' Financial Rights

 

 

Last week TREA Legislative Director Larry Madison and Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders attended a meeting with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to discuss the issue of forced arbitration and how its use by so many companies essentially nullifies the rights granted to Active Duty personnel and members of the Guard and Reserve by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).

SCRA provides certain protections from civil actions against reservists & members of the guard who are called to Active Duty or given orders to deploy. It restricts or limits actions against these personnel in the areas of financial management, such as rental agreements, security deposits, evictions, installment contracts, credit card interest rates, mortgages, civil judicial proceedings, income tax payments, and more.
 
However, more and more, forced arbitration clauses are buried in the fine print of nonnegotiable financial agreements utilized by most major banks; they are not utilized by community banks or credit unions.  These clauses apply to everything from credit cards and checking accounts to prepaid cards and payday loans, effecting tens of millions of consumers. With the use of forced arbitration, banks block lawsuits, including all class actions, from proceeding in court.  Because forced arbitration is private, there is no public record, no meaningful appellate process, and no requirement that arbitrators enforce state and federal laws. 
 
Forced arbitration is routinely used by major banks and in effect, it strips servicemembers of their rights under federal law, actively circumventing protections enacted to ensure servicemembers financial well-being while on active duty.   This issue was first recognized by the Department of Defense in 2006, which concluded that "Service members should maintain full legal recourse against unscrupulous lenders. Loan contracts to Service members should not include mandatory arbitration clauses or onerous notice provisions, and should not require the Service member to waive his or her right of recourse, such as the right to participate in a plaintiff class. Waiver isn't a matter of 'choice' in take-it-or-leave-it contracts of adhesion." 
 
 
This situation came before the federal Consumer Financial Protection Board (CFPB) and the board ruled in favor of DoD's  2006  recommendations for servicemembers and the need to ensure their ability to enforce their rights under federal law.
 
The final rule does two simple things:
 
1. Restores targeted, private enforcement power to Americans against law-breaking banks, eliminating the need for industry-wide government regulations and burdensome compliance costs.
2.  Maintains the right of banks to force individuals into arbitration, but for the first time imposes new transparency requirements on arbitrations to better inform the banking public.
 
The final rule will codify Senator Lindsey Graham's Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA) Rights Protection Act.
 
However, there is a bill in Congress to overturn the CFPB's ruling.  Unfortunately, the House of Representatives passed the bill.  The action is now in the Senate and we are making every effort to convince senators to uphold the CFPB ruling.

TREA has been helping to coordinate efforts within The Military Coalition to rally the opposition of over 30 military and veterans associations to oppose the legislation.

You should also be aware that everyone in the nation is covered by these forced arbitration clauses in the same way that servicemembers are when they enter into many, if not most, financial arrangements.  However, there is no law that is supposed to exempt them from the terms of forced arbitration.

 

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Estimate: It May Cost $2 Billion to Clean Up Toxic Spills at Over 400 DOD Installations

 

 

TREA: The Enlisted Association has been tracking a developing story out of Oscoda Township, Michigan at the old Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which closed in the 1990's during the first round of BRAC.

Democratic Senators said earlier this month that it may cost up to $2 billion to clean up toxic firefighting chemicals that have leaked from more than 400 U.S. military installations, mostly those affiliated with the Air Force or Navy. 

The Senate's Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (FY '18 NDAA) requested a study of PFOS and PFOA (PFCs), which were key ingredients in a foam that was used for decades to douse aircraft fires at military bases, civilian airports, fire stations and defense industrial factories.

In the last year people around the country have realized that the chemicals contaminated groundwater at many of those sites. US citizens all over the country, many not affiliated with the US military, have learned that the chemical concentrations in their drinking water exceed recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The chemicals have been linked to cancer, thyroid problems and immune system disorders, although scientists aren't sure exactly how they interact in the human body.

In a bit of good news, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says it will update the 2001 public health assessment for Wurtsmith. ATSDR is an independent agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which operates jointly with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The 2001 assessment found that it was "unknown" whether trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing industrial solvent found at astonishing levels in base drinking water in the late 1970s at Wurtsmith, "persisted at high enough levels for long enough durations to actually pose a public health hazard." In the intervening years the science has progressed enough so that it is extremely likely that a causal connection between chronic exposure and health problems can be established.

The report will be ready for public review this spring, ATSDR said.
The hope is that the updated report prods the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to extend disability benefits and treatment to former service members without forcing them to somehow show medical evidence that links their disability claim to TCE exposure.

For that to happen, though, the ATSDR must conclude TCE exposure likely harmed people at Wurtsmith. That has to occur before the VA would consider amending its benefits policy. At that point it is extremely likely that Congress would need to appropriate additional funds for the victims, like it did with Camp Lejeune toxic exposure victims.

TCE levels at Wurtsmith in 1977 were found to be as high as 5,173 parts-per-billion (ppb), which is more than 1,000 times the EPA's current limit of 5-ppb for TCE in drinking water. TCE levels in LeJeune drinking water reached 1,400-ppb in the 1980s, prompting Congressional action for servicemembers and their families who were exposed to it.

Hopefully this turns out well for all the victims of toxic exposure at Wurtsmith, especially TREA: The Enlisted Association's friends at the Veteran & Civilian Clean Water Alliance, who have been fighting to recognize both TCE and  PFC exposure all over the country.

If you or anyone you know is a veteran who has been exposed to these or other chemicals due to your service, click on the hyperlink above and join their Facebook group. They are dedicated to getting you the resources that you need and deserve.
 

 

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CFPB Operation Order: How to Protect Your Personal Information in the Wake of Equifax Breach

 

 

If you were one of the many servicemembers and their families affected by the recent Equifax data breach, it is time for you to secure your identity. Thankfully, active duty servicemembers have special tools at their disposal, like active duty alerts or a security freeze, to reduce the risk of identity theft

Here is a CFPB operation order for what you can do next to secure your identity:

  1. Situation: The personal information of a reported 143 million people has been stolen, including many servicemembers.    

 

  1. Enemy forces: Criminals with your stolen information may attempt to use your credit cards or open new accounts in your name. It can be hard to notice that you were a victim of identity theft until you review your reports or statements and see charges you didn't make, or are contacted by a debt collector about a debt that you don't recognize.
  2. Friendly forces: We are working hard and along with other government agencies and looking into the data breach and Equifax's response

 

  1. Mission: Secure your identity from criminals who may have stolen your personal information.
  2. Execution: Use the tools available to you to secure your identity and prevent criminals from taking your money or running up bills in your name.

 

    1. Concept of the operation: You should closely monitor your financial statements and credit reports. If you see anything out of the ordinary, no matter how small, you should take action immediately.
      1. Review your free credit reports for signs of fraud or identity theft.
      2. Sign up for an active duty alert on your credit report.
      3. Consider placing a security freeze on your credit.
      4. Review any free credit monitoring services offered by the company affected by the data breach. Read the fine print, but never give your credit card information for a "free" product.
  1. Service support: If you're run into problems taking these actions, you can submit a complaint to the CFPB online or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372).
  2. Command and signal: For help handling financial challenges at every step of your military career visit our guide through the military lifecycle.

 

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Here's What's New About the "Forever" GI Bill

 

 

  1. There is no longer an expiration date. Previously, veterans had to use their Post-9/11 GI Bill within 15 years of their last 90-day period of active-duty service. That requirement is going away.

           
This portion of the law will apply to anyone who left the military after January 1, 2013. It will also apply to spouses who are receiving education benefits through the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship for family members of service members who were killed in the line of duty since Sept. 10, 2001.
 

  1. Purple Heart recipients will be eligible for 100 percent of the Post 9/11 GI Bill regardless of how much time they spent in a combat zone on or after Sept. 11. This includes coverage of tuition costs at a public school's in-state rate for 36 months and stipends for textbooks and housing.

            Previously, Purple Heart recipients were beholden to the same time-in-service qualifications for the GI Bill as other service members. This meant that Purple Heart recipients without a service-connected disability who did not reach 36 months of service were only eligible for a percentage of the benefits and not the full amount.

            An estimated 660 Purple Heart recipients each year over the next 10 years will be able to take advantage of the increased benefits. This provision will go into effect in August 2018.

 

  1. More people are eligible for Yellow Ribbon, a voluntary agreement between schools and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to split school costs not covered by the GI Bill, reducing or eliminating the amount students must pay themselves.

 
            The Forever GI Bill will expand eligibility for this program to surviving spouses or children of service members in August 2018 and active-duty service members in August 2022. Previously, only veterans eligible for GI Bill benefits at the 100 percent level or their dependents using transferred benefits were eligible for Yellow Ribbon.
 

  1. Veterans going to school for STEM degrees (college degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields) are now authorized an additional school year of GI Bill funds on a first-come, first-serve basis.

            Scholarships of up to $30,000 will be available for eligible GI Bill users starting in  August 2018. Only veterans or surviving family members of deceased service members are eligible for this scholarship - not dependents using transferred benefits.
 

  1. Vets hurt by school shutdowns will get benefits back; a provision in the new GI Bill will restore benefits to victims of school closures. This applies to GI Bill users whose schools have abruptly closed since January 2015, for credits earned at the shuttered institutions that did not transfer to new schools. This will include the thousands of veteran students who were attending the national for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute when they closed in 2015 and 2016, respectively. It would also provide a semester's worth of reimbursement for GI Bill users affected by future school closures, as well as up to four months of a housing stipend so veterans don't end up homeless if their school suddenly shuts down and they lost their GI Bill housing allowance.

 

  1. Starting August 2020, this bill changes the way the VA uses time in service to calculate eligibility. Previously, service members with at least 90 days but less than six months of active-duty service would be eligible for up to 40 percent of the full GI Bill benefits. Under new regulations, the same 90-days-to-six-month window is equal to 50 percent of benefits. Service members with at least six months and less than 18 months of service will be eligible for 60 percent of benefits. This change will tend to benefit reservists more due to the nature of their service.

 

  1. Starting in August of 2018, members of the National Guard and Reserve will be able to count time spent receiving medical care or recovering from injuries received while on active duty toward their GI Bill eligibility. This will apply to all who have been activated since 9/11.

            The Forever GI Bill also allows individuals who lost their Reserve Educational  Assistance Program when the program ended in 2015 to credit their previous service toward their eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
 

  1. This is how it is all being paid for: TREA: The Enlisted Association is very, very wary of allowing Congress to think that we will support cutting veterans' benefits to fund new veterans' benefits. However, this cut makes the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefit equal to what the active duty is currently receiving, so it was very hard to argue against.

 
The "Forever" GI Bill is paid for by a 1 percent decrease in housing stipends over the next five years. This will bring veterans' housing stipends on par with what active-duty service members receive at the E-5 with dependents rate. (Veterans on the GI Bill currently receive a slightly higher housing allowance rate than active-duty E-5s with dependents.) This change will take effect on Jan. 1, 2018 and will only apply to service members who enroll in GI Bill benefits after that date. No one currently receiving a housing stipend from the VA will see a reduction in benefits.
 
            Starting in August 2018, housing stipends previously calculated based on the ZIP code of a student's school will be based on where a student takes the most classes. Also beginning in August 2018, reservists will continue to receive their monthly housing allowance under the GI Bill on a prorated rate for any month during which they are activated, preventing them from losing a whole month's worth of funds.
 

  1. The new GI Bill offers more flexibility with the transfer and distribution of benefits in case of death. If a dependent who received transferred benefits dies before using all of the benefits, this provision gives the service member or veteran the ability to transfer remaining benefits to another dependent. This will go into effect August 2018 and apply to all deaths since 2009.

 
            This provision also gives dependents of deceased service members the ability to make changes to their deceased loved one's transferred benefits. Currently, only a service member has the authority to make changes to the benefits they would like to transfer. If a service member dies after transferring 35 months of benefits to one child and one month of benefits to another, for example, currently the family would not be able to make future changes to the GI Bill's distribution among that service member's dependents. This new legislation changes that.
 

  1. Surviving spouses and children of service members who are receiving benefits through the Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance Program will see their monthly education stipend increase by $200.

            However, the same program previously provided 45 months of education benefits - that  will decrease to 36 months in August 2018 to bring it in line with the provisions of the GI Bill.
 
11. Finally, individuals who certify veteran student enrollment at schools with more than 20 veteran students will be required to undergo training. Previously, training was not mandatory.

 

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VA Appeals Modernization Legislation

 

 

Last month President Trump signed into law the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 to fix the clogged process for deciding appeals of veterans' disability claims.

It creates a new "three-lane" option for appealing claims which should make for a faster appeal decision process. The entire point of the legislation is to cut into a rising backlog of appeals, which is nearing 500,000 and takes an average of three years; some veterans currently have to wait six years. One veteran was in the news for having to wait a decade for a decision on appeal.

Some critics argue that the legislation weakens the "duty-to-assist" obligations of the VA too much during the appeals process. Veteran Service Organizations allowed that to happen so that the "effective date" of a claim would be preserved if the veteran introduced new evidence to a claim at any point during the appeals process.

Before this new law passed, the Department of Veterans' Affairs had a "duty to assist" the veteran in compiling that new evidence, whether it was seeking files from other government agencies (usually the Department of Defense), private doctors or hospitals.

Now the effective date of the claim is preserved, as long as something is submitted within the one year following the initial claims decision point.
Here are the "three lanes" created by the new law:

Lane one is Local Higher-Level of Review - Veterans can request that a more experienced claims adjudicator review the same evidence considered by the original claims processor. The idea is to ensure that it was properly decided.

Lane two is the New Evidence lane: allows a veteran who has new evidence to support the claim to ask the Veterans Benefits Administration to reconsider the merits of the original claim based on that new information.

Lane Three is a formal appeal: where jurisdiction for review transfers to the Board of Veterans Appeals. The veteran at this stage also can seek a hearing before a judge to review the case and that could include new evidence.

The new law limits the times that you can submit additional evidence, but it doesn't cut it out, while protecting the effective date of the claim if it's granted.

The duty-to-assist obligation on VA won't apply during initial lanes of appeal but will be there when a veteran can file an appeal within a year based on new evidence, and also during the formal appeal lane if a hearing before a judge is requested rather than a Board of Appeals review.

An important provision of the new law mandates that VA improve original claim decision notices so they more clearly inform veterans of the reasoning behind VA decisions. This should help veterans determine whether to file an appeal and the best lane for them. It also should reduce unnecessary appeals.

There are more details to come on exactly when veterans who currently have claims pending can switch over to the new system. Stay tuned.

 

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