 Vet Toxic Exposure Legislation:

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are backing a bill that would repeal a tax increase on benefits paid to families of U.S. service members who died in the line of duty. The 2017 tax reform law increased the taxes on certain payments to survivors of the fallen, primarily children who receive survivor benefits from the Defense Department. These benefits were previously taxed at rates of 12% to 15%, but now are taxed at 37% — the rate used to calculate taxes on income on trusts and estates. Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), introduced the legislation, the Gold Star Family Tax Relief Act, or H.R. 2481, which would classify survivor benefits as earned income, reducing the tax burden of the payments. A retired Navy commander and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she said Gold Star families have “already paid the ultimate price” and shouldn’t have to suffer. “It broke my heart when a surviving spouse from coastal Virginia alerted me to this injustice,” Luria said in a release. “I knew I had to fight for her in Congress to fix a broken system that should be working for her and her family.” The bill would affect military widows and widowers who put some of their survivor benefits in their children’s names — a move taken by many to ensure that they don’t lose a portion of their Defense Department survivor payments and Veterans Affairs payments. Gold Star spouse Theresa Jones, who lost her husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones, in 2013, wrote about the change in a Military.com opinion editorial April 29. The taxes she owes for her sons’ death benefits for 2018 increased more than four-and-a-half times from the previous year, she said. “The last little bit of stability my children have has now been put on the chopping block,” she wrote

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 VA may have incorrect addresses for 25,000 veterans:

The Department of Veterans Affairs has notified veterans in several states that the address the agency has on file for them may have been incorrectly changed. In social media postings and press releases, the VA has stated that both the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration have “detected inconsistencies with how veterans’ permanent mailing addresses are being updated and stored at VHA medical facilities and shared with the national enrollment system.” The postings urge all veterans to verify that the information the VA has on file for them is correct. To do this, veterans should go to www.va.gov/change-address and verify that their mailing and home addresses, phone number and email information are correct.

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• Transition Assistance Program (TAP) update changes coming to TAP this Fall;

Changes are coming to the Pentagon’s program for transitioning troops, which is designed to boost veterans’ chances for success, starting with requirements that must be completed more than a year before a service member plans to leave. Starting 1 OCT, service members will have to complete their initial counseling with a Transition Assistance Program adviser and fill out their personal self-assessment, also known as an individual transition plan, no later than 365 days before retirement or the end of their enlistment.  

As before, they will then be required to attend an eight-hour Defense Department pre-separation training day, during which they will learn about resiliency and managing their transition. They also receive coaching on how to translate their military skills into recognizable civilian terms, among other workshops, followed by day-long briefings from the departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor. Then, service members will have a couple of days of the usual five-day TAP to choose workshops on one or more of four tracks: employment, vocational, higher education and entrepreneurship.

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• VA appeals status tracker – how to check the status of your claim:

Knowing what stage of the appeals process your claim is in can help you avoid missing deadlines and better understand how the VA claims and appeals process works. Generally, there are eight steps that disability claims follow: 1) Claim Received. Your claim is moved to this stage once it has been received by VA. 2) Under Review. A Veterans Service Representative is reviewing your claim to determine if there is a need for additional evidence. This includes the results of your Compensation and Pension Exam, which VA will schedule. 3) Gathering of Evidence. If the Veterans Service Representative deems that your claim requires additional evidence, he or she will request it from the appropriate sources. 4) Review of Evidence. All evidence is received and is under review. 5) Preparation for Decision. At this stage, the Veterans Service Representative has recommended a decision and is preparing documents detailing that decision.  6) Pending Decision Approval. The Veterans Service Representative’s decision is reviewed, and a decision is made. 7) Preparation for Notification. Your decision is being prepared for mailing. 8) Complete. The award or decision is sent to you via U.S. mail, along with the details surrounding this decision. 

VA allows veterans to track the progress of their claims throughout the claim stream in three ways:

 by visiting a local VA regional office;

 by calling VA’s national toll-free phone number at 800-827-1000;

 by logging into government and using VA’s appeals tracker.

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 Military Survivor Benefits update – H.R.1911 | Gold Star and Military Survivors Act:

When Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, his wife Seana vowed to follow the plan the couple had for their family: She would remain a stay-at-home mom to raise their son, now 11. She continues to do that, thanks to the compensation and health benefits provided to widows and widowers of service members who die in the line of duty. Seana Arrechaga was 22 when her soldier died, and she continues to grieve. She doesn’t date. But not simply out of respect for Ofren. She doesn’t see the point, she says, because dating could lead to marriage. And if she remarries before she turns 55, she would lose thousands of dollars a month because of a law that would stop her annuity payments when she tied the knot. “A lot of people assume that we are well taken care of,” said Arrechaga of Gold Star spouses. “And we are, to a point. But to not be able to remarry, to lose benefits, seems unfair.”

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 VA presumptive Agent Orange diseases update – H.R.2201 | Keeping Our Promises Act:

Recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports have found an association between exposure to Agent Orange and bladder cancer, hypertension, and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. This week, Representatives Westerman (R-AK), Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Tipton (D-CA), Stefanik (R-NY), Cunningham (D-SC), Boyle (D-PA), Thompson (D-CA) and Kuster (D-N.) introduced H.R. 2201, the VFW-supported Keeping Our Promises Act, which adds the new conditions to the list of conditions presumed to be associated with Agent Orange exposure. Adding these conditions to the list would provide veterans exposed to Agent Orange an expedited avenue for care and compensation benefits. The bill would also force VA to evaluate and make a decision on future recommendations. Learn more about the Keeping Our Promises Act at https://westerman.house.gov/mediacenter/press-releases/westerman-introduces-legislation-benefitting-vietnam-era-veterans

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 VA announces improvements to veteran community care under Mission Act:

The new eligibility criteria will be a major improvement over existing criteria in terms of making things simpler: currently, eligibility criteria vary between VA’s community care programs.  When the new criteria go into effect, Veterans can expect better access and greater choice in their health care, whether at VA or through a community provider.

 The eligibility criteria are projected to go into effect in June 2019 after final regulations are published and  ffective, so the criteria are not yet final. In addition, key aspects of community care eligibility include the             following:

  1. Veterans must receive approval from VA prior to obtaining care from a community provider in most circumstances.
  2. Veterans must either be enrolled in VA health care or be eligible for VA care without needing to enroll to be eligible for community care. 
  3. Eligibility for community care will continue to be dependent upon a Veteran’s individual health care needs or circumstances.
  4. VA staff members generally make all eligibility determinations.
  5. Veterans will usually have the option to receive care at a VA medical facility regardless of their eligibility for community care.
  6. Meeting any one of six eligibility criteria listed below is sufficient to be referred to a community provider—a Veteran does not have to meet all of them to be eligible. (Real-world examples of when a Veteran would be eligible for community care are included in the eligibility fact sheet linked at the end of the article).

          Eligibility criteria

Veteran Needs a Service Not Available at a VA Medical Facility

Eligibility Criteria

            Veteran Lives in a U.S. State or Territory Without a Full-Service VA Medical Facility

            VA Cannot Furnish Care within Certain Designated Access Standards

            Veteran Qualifies under the “Grandfather” Provision Related to Distance Eligibility for the Veterans Choice Program

            It Is in the Veteran’s Best Medical Interest

            A VA Medical Service Line Does Not Meet Certain Quality Standards

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 Supreme court delays final ruling on ‘Blue Water’ Vietnam veterans benefits:

            As reported by Leo Shane III for Military Times, the Supreme Court this week granted a 30-day extension to Department of Justice officials contemplating an appeal of a lower court ruling in January which extended  presumptive benefits to tens of thousands of Navy veterans who have claimed exposure to toxic chemical  defoliants during the Vietnam War.  But advocates say they are not concerned by the move, calling it a typical    legal maneuver and not a serious threat to getting benefits to the group of so-called “blue water” veterans.

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 VA disability ratings – Post-9/11 vet ratings far higher than prior generations:

According to a government report, Post-9/11 active-duty veterans have disability rates significantly higher than those of previous generations. About 41 percent of those who served after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones have disability ratings from the Department of Veterans Affairs, compared to 25 percent of eras, according to the annual survey of veterans employment and status by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Based on the Current Population Survey of 60,000 households in 2018, BLS said that “41 percent of Gulf War-era II [post-9/11] veterans had a service-connected disability, compared with 25 percent of all veterans.”

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 VA Telehealth – virtual clinics | mental health & primary care treatment:

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which already has the biggest telehealth program in the United States, is expanding its coverage to fill critical gaps in areas such as mental health and primary care. In fiscal 2018, VA conducted more than a million patient visits through video, and more than 13 percent of veterans have received at least some of their treatment through telehealth. Dr. Neil Evans, the chief officer for the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Connected Care, speaking 4 APR at a GovernmentCIO conference on health IT modernization, said the agency now provides intensive care unit-level treatment to its rural VA facilities. “We’re really excited about seeing that continued expansion of how we reach patients and also how we can operate more efficiently as an integrated national health system,” Evans said.

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