Saturday, December 15, 2007

Senator Rockefeller press release and fact sheet

Washington, DC (HNN) – Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV on Friday, Dec. 14 hailed the U.S. Senate’s passage of the FY 08 Defense Authorization Conference Report that will strengthen military readiness, increase benefits for West Virginia’s National Guard and Reservists, and provide tax relief to veterans and military families. The measure also includes the Rockefeller cosponsored bill the Wounded Warriors Act, which was authored in the wake of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal, to better address veteran and active duty military health care benefits and services -- and to address the unique needs of veterans suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “We’ve asked our National Guard and Reservists to serve on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan and always be prepared if disaster strikes closer to home. They’re doing everything that we ask of them, but they need to have the equipment to do the job and better benefits to care for their families,” Rockefeller said. “And for our veterans who return home, some bearing the physical and emotional scars of war, we need to ensure that they get the best physical and mental health care. And we recognize that having the support of a family is crucial to the healing process, so we’ve made it easier for loved ones to care for their wounded warrior.” The FY’08 Defense Authorization Act Conference Report was passed by the Senate by a vote of 90-3. It includes provisions to provide much needed equipment to soldiers in the field, gives active duty service members a 3.5 percent pay raise, and addresses the care of injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. ( See fact sheet below) The joint Senate-House agreement also prohibits fee increases for the military HMO known as TRICARE, ensures adequate staffing levels at military hospitals, and extends the VA health insurance eligibility of a service member who served in combat to 5 years, instead of the current 2 years, to better address the medical needs of soldiers, including the rising incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Additionally, the bill improves transparency in military contracting by establishing a Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan to study and investigate federal agency contracting for reconstruction. For private security contractors operating in those countries, the bill requires that they comply with DOD regulations on the use of force, as well as orders and directives from combat commanders regarding the security, health, safety, and interactions with Iraqi and Afghani civilians. The legislation also focuses attention on the growing conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region by requiring a report on Pakistan’s efforts to eliminate safe havens for violent extremists on its territory and to prevent cross-border incursions by those extremists into Afghanistan. The bill contains a number of provisions that will improve the morale, readiness and benefits for National Guard and Reservists. First, the bill increases the rank of the Chief of the National Guard Bureau from lieutenant general (three stars) to general (four stars) and expands the eligibility requirements and duties. To better improve the National Guard’s response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive incident, the bill provides an increase of $30 million for the procurement of specialized detection equipment that can be used both for overseas deployments and domestically. The measure also creates an advisory panel to assess the ability of the DOD and civil authorities to respond to such an incident. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law by the end of the month.
Allows Reservists, who serve on active duty, to use their enhanced educational benefits for up to 10 years after leaving the reserves (currently they must be used immediately) and to be paid on an accelerated basis. It also allows Reservists with three cumulative years of active duty service to qualify for education benefits at 80 percent of the active duty rate. (Currently, they are required to serve two years continuous active duty to get this benefit.)
Reduces the age at which a Reservist can draw retirement below the age of 60 by 3 months for every aggregate 90 days of active duty service in most military operations.
Reimburse up to $300 for travel expenses for reserve training.
Establishes a national combat veteran reintegration program to help reservists reintegrate into their families and communities through family services and post-deployment screening. Improved Treatment of Returning Veterans The FY 08 Defense Authorization Conference Report takes essential steps to respond to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal by improving the care of injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – addressing many of the issues raised by the Dole-Shalala Commission and implementing several of its recommendations. The measure improves outpatient medical care for wounded service members at military health care facilities; begins restoring integrity and efficiency to disability evaluations and cutting bureaucratic red-tape; and improves the transition of wounded service members from the Armed Forces to the VA system. Key Improvements include
Changing the Family Medical Leave Act to provide six months of unpaid, job-protected leave to the spouse, parent, child, or next of kin of service members who suffer from a service-connected injury or illness;
Creating the Wounded Warrior Resource Center to serve as the single point of contact for service members, their families, and caregivers to report issues with facilities, obtain health care, and receive benefits information;
Requiring semi-annual inspections of housing facilities for recovering service members;
Requiring the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to jointly develop a comprehensive policy on the care and management of members of the armed forces, including the development of fully interoperable electronic health records;
Mandating the establishment of new standards for: processing disability evaluations to reduce discrepancies between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, training for disability evaluation personnel, rating disabilities that take into account all medical conditions, as well as requiring a pilot program for improving the disability evaluation system;
Mandates the establishment of new standards for processing medical evaluations, training and qualifying those performing the evaluations, and assigning independent medical advisors to assist recovering service members and families;
Requiring a comprehensive policy to address traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other mental health conditions, establishing DOD Centers of Excellence on PTSD and TBI to improve treatment, research, training and rehabilitation, requiring enrollment and registry of TBI patients to ensure continuity of care, guaranteeing veterans a VA mental health assessment within 30 days of request, expanding hiring to address shortage in mental health professionals, and strengthening DOD training for better detection of PTSD.; and
Requiring a DOD study of the support services provided to families of recovering service members, and a National Academy of Sciences study on the physical and mental health needs of those deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Tax Relief for Disabled Veterans and Military Families
Takes several steps toward ending the Disabled Veterans Tax –. It expands the special compensation for combat-related disabled retirees to cover all who are medically retired for combat disabilities. (Under current law, they must have served 20 years.) It also speeds up the end of the disabled veterans tax for veterans who are 100 percent disabled, making that effective January 1, 2005 instead of October 1, 2009. This legislation is essential for the more than 28,000 injured personnel who are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom are amputees or have combat-related injuries and must be medically retired.
Makes progress in ending the Military Families Tax, which unfairly penalizes the more than 60,000 survivors, most of them widows, of those who have died as a result of their service-connected injuries. Currently, these widows lose their survivor benefits if they also receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation benefits (because their spouse died of a service-connected injury), but this measure establishes a special survivor indemnity allowance of $50 per month to begin to address this tax – increasing to $100 by 2014.

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