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Washington Update for 11/15/2017

Photo:  TREA representatives (L-R:  1st Vice Ed Cates, Auxiliary President Irmgard Cates,  National President John Adams, TREA Life Member Doug Osborne, VFW escort) presented a memorial wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetary as part of the Veteran's Day Ceremony. 

 

TREA: The Enlisted Association's Washington Update

 

 

TREA: The Enlisted Association's Washington Update

 

 

House Passes New National Defense Authorization Act

 

 

Last week we sent out an alert to our members on our email list asking them to contact their Senators and Representatives about the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was being negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee.  You responded by the hundreds and we are grateful for all those who took the time to contact their members of Congress.

The committee has finished its work and we can report that we won a partial victory.  The  final bill  preserves the grandfather provision for working age retirees, which is what we had asked for.

However,  the bill raises pharmacy fees and encourages greater use of generic drugs, on-base pharmacies and mail order. Co-pays for a 30-day supply of brand drugs at retail, or a 90-day supply by mail order, will be raised to $28 and will climb to $45 by 2026. Co-pays for generic drugs at retail will be raised to $10 in 2018 and to $14 by 2026. To encourage greater use of base pharmacies, where drugs will remain free of charge, the plan will add a $10 co-pay for mail order generic drugs, rising to $14 by 2026.

Survivors of members who die on active duty and members retired for disability would be exempt from the drug co-pay increases.

Finally, we said that neither the House nor the Senate solved the problem of the SBP-DIC offset in their versions of the NDAA.  The final agreement in the NDAA conference bill makes permanent and begins adjusting for inflation the $310-a-month Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) that was set to expire next May.

Congress won't eliminate the SBP-DIC offset entirely, arguing that doing so is unaffordable. But House-Senate conferees accepted the Senate plan to make the SSIA permanent and to adjust it annually using the same cost-of-living adjustment or COLA used to protect the value of military retired pay.

The point being that although  survivors will keep getting the $310 a month, Congress told them that the SBP-DIC offset will not be entirely offset.

TREA does not accept that and we will continue to fight for the total elimination of the offset.

There were victories for active duty personnel also.  They will receive a 2.4 percent pay raise instead of the 2.1 percent that the Senate had wanted.

In addition, the Senate's plan to cut housing allowances for dual service couples with children was thrown out. Under the Senate plan, one of the service members no longer would have been eligible for Basic Allowance for Housing at the higher "with dependents" rate.

However, on top of all of this is the fact that Congress has not yet passed a budget for the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2018, which we are now in.  If they cannot agree on a new budget and instead opt to continue operating with the same budget as DoD did in fy2017, much of this could change because the NDAA assumes an increased DoD budget for fy2018.  We may not know for sure what will happen until mid to late-December.

 

 

 

 

TREA Supports New Bill to Encourage Veterans in Technical Careers

 

 

TREA has endorsed a new bi-partisan piece of legislation introduced by Representatives Neal Dunn (R- Fla.) and Mark Takano (D- Calif.) called the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act.

The purpose of the bill is to encourage veterans to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and computer science, in coordination with other Federal agencies that serve veterans.

The bill requires the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a veteran outreach plan and to track  veteran participation, including data on veterans in annual science and engineering indicators report.

In addition, it updates the Noyce Teacher Scholarship program, NSF Fellowship programs, and cyber grant programs to include outreach to veterans.

It also creates a National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee under the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on veterans and military families and STEM Education, including looking at career barriers such as transfer of credits and skills.

This bill is different from most veteran-related legislation in that it was sent to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology for consideration.

We believe this bill would be good news for veterans interested in pursuing a career in one of the STEM areas.  We also are looking into whether or not new legislation is needed to encourage veterans to seek vocational education, since not all veterans are interested in going to college.

 

 

 

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TREA: The Enlisted Association Talks Tax Reform

 

 

Last week TREA: The Enlisted Association, represented by Deputy Legislative Director, was invited to participate in a panel discussion up on Capitol Hill regarding tax reform and its effects on veterans.

Mr. Saunders was joined on the panel by Evan Hafer, CEO, Black Rifle Coffee, BG Dick Miller, USA (Ret), National Veterans Business Development Council, Don Bramer, LT, USNR and President, The Bramer Group, Art Pue, Chairman of The Independence Fund, and RDML Chuck Williams, USN (Ret) Board Member, Corporate America Supports You.

It was moderated by Robert Carey, also of The Independence Fund.

Topics for discussion included: whether forcing those vendors to collect sales tax of the state of residence of the customer gives mail order companies an unfair competitive advantage, repealing the estate tax, the forgiveness of student loans, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), lifting the cap on Thrift Savings Plan contributions by member of the Guard and Reserve, small business tax rates, and the deductibility of home interest mortgage.

TREA: The Enlisted Association has long supported the WOTC, especially since in the three years prior to the VOW To Hire A Hero Act of 2011 only 35,000 veterans qualified for WOTC and in the three years after enactment over 275,000 veterans qualified - an increase of over 700%. Small business owners seem less enthused by the tool, as compared to larger corporations (which seem to love it), but from TREA's point of view the goal is to get as many veterans hired as possible. This is just one more tool to help veterans find meaningful employment as they transition back to the private sector. Thus we support the WOTC.

Unfortunately, it looks like this tax credit is going away as it is not currently included in either the House or Senate versions of tax reform. There is a possiblity that it could expire as soon as December 31, 2017 if the House version (HR 1) is ultimately adopted. There is still more wheeling and dealing to come, and TREA: The Enlisted Association will keep you informed on how it is shaking out.

Other items of interest in tax reform include: whether or not getting rid of the deductibility of moving expense reimbursement will affect servicemembers who have a Permanent Change of Duty Station (PCS); whether or not getting rid of the deduction for employer-provided housing will affect military Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), which is currently tax deductible. If any other issues come up we will let you know.

 

 

 

Tax Reform May Force Cuts to Medicare

 

 

The Congressional Budget Office said yesterday that under current congressional "pay as you go" rules, the proposed tax legislation would cause an automatic, across-the-board cut of $136 billion to federal "mandatory" spending. Of that, a maximum of $25 billion would come from Medicare. 

This is of interest to TREA: The Enlisted Association and its members because Medicare is a first payer for TRICARE For Life. 

For more information on this important issue, go to: http://thehill.com/policy/finance/budget/360300-tax-bill-could-spur-25-billion-in-medicare-cuts-cbo

 

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VA Benefits "Reform"?

 

 

It is looking very likely that we will be facing dramatic proposals to change the present VA benefits structure. Last week VA Secretary David Sulkin, while celebrating Veterans Day, called for an overhaul and realignment of the present system.

At the National Press Club, he said: "Today ... I call for a new way of thinking about benefits. I want to see an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders about rationalizing veterans benefits - a veterans benefit advisory board that can bring clarity to what we're trying to do for veterans and what's best and how we can do that in the best way."

He complained that in the last 150 years various veterans were created at different times, by different Administrations and Congresses reacting to many different wars and situations." A Veterans Advisory Board" could focus on what he said was the main goals of the Veterans Benefits Administrations programs: "providing financial security for those who are severely disabled, providing mental and physical wellbeing to veterans, offering economic and professional opportunities and helping them reintegrate back into civilian life."

This sounds like another call for disability payments to go only "the severely disabled." Later in the speech he said: "We have to emphasize service-connection for disabilities so we aren't compensating veterans for age-related issues."  We have heard suggestions like these for at least the last 20 years. Why do we need to pay for small disabilities of 10% or 20%? Why should there be service connected presumptions for exposure to chemicals that cause illnesses like cancers that become more common as people age?

Instead of payments the Secretary says that:" We need more incentives for achieving wellness and independence. This should be a system that focuses on veterans' abilities, not on their disabilities. VA needs to transform into an organization where we are veterans' advocates and we facilitate them getting benefits, not being the gatekeeper of benefits decisions."

He tried to reassure us that this will not focus on saving money but on effective service by saying: "Let me be clear though, this is not about taking away benefits from veterans. This is about making benefits work better for veterans and transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs to do better for years and for generations for future veterans. I think they deserve no less than that."

But then he correctly mentioned that the estimated costs of new programs throughout history have been low.  He goes on to note that before we started to successfully chip away at DoD retired pay and VA disability pay offset no DoD retirees could receive their retired pay and VA disability and that "by 2013 59,000 DoD retirees received concurrent benefits, along with Social Security, which totaled more than $3.5 billion" .......That "Mandatory VA benefits spending has risen by more than $80 billion over the past 30-to-40 years. The department spent $95.3 billion on mandatory benefits in 2017, well above the $13.7 billion total in 1980."..... And that "Administrative costs of the Veterans Benefits Administration have gone up by $4 billion --- from $1 billion in 2000 to $5 billion in 2017."

This surely looks like at least one cause for this proposal is to save money. You should know that TREA's Washington Office is focused on this possible threat to your earned benefits. We also urge you to make sure that both your Congressional representatives and the Administration know what programs are important to you and what you and your fellow servicemembers did to earn these benefits. 
 

 

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