Legislative Affairs August 2018 – by Barry Coyle
In Washington news, Congress has been busy and productive with legislation and activities of interest to MOAA members. As I previously reported, President Trump signed the VA Mission Bill into law on 6 June. This legislation includes: modernization of the VA health care system, including expanded access to community providers; expanding assistance to caregivers of disabled veterans; additional care and services for women veterans; improved support and care related to suicide prevention and traumatic injuries; increased research and compensation regarding deployment-related illnesses and toxic exposures; improved protections for Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients; military spouse residency support and transition programs; and infrastructure modernization. Unfortunately, the initial law only provides full funding of these provisions through May 2019. Long-term funding of the Mission Act is currently under discussion in the Veterans and Appropriations Committees of both Houses, with significant issues needing to be resolved.
On 23 July, the Senate confirmed Robert Wilkie as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, finally providing senior leadership in this position.
The FY 2019 Defense Authorization and Appropriations Bills are still working their way through the House and Senate committee hearings and mark-up process without major issues so far. The Authorization Bills from both the Senate and House were consolidated by a Joint Conference Committee and sent first to the House for a vote. The House approved the Conference Committee version on 25 July and sent it to the Senate for final approval. The Senate is also expected to approve it and send it to the President prior to the Summer recess. This is the first time in many years that a DoD Authorization Bill is on track for approval prior to the start of the Fiscal Year. The annual Appropriations Bill generally lags a month or so behind the Authorization, but is also on track for passage before 1 October, with no significant issues surfacing to date. The 2019 Authorization Bill includes a 2.6% pay increase for active duty personnel, increased end strength for all the military branches, expanded maintenance and repair programs to improve readiness, and additional quantities of new weapons systems. The bill also authorizes disabled veterans, care-givers of severely disabled veterans and recipients of the Purple Heart to use military Commissaries and Exchanges beginning in January 2020. Thanks in part to a strong MOAA lobbying campaign (that included 17,000 letters from individual MOAA members), the final version of the Authorization Bill deleted the increased fees for TRICARE Select and Prime users that were included in the Senate version of the bill. If you participated in this lobbying effort, Thank You and Congratulations! Speaking of TRICARE, don’t forget that the Retiree Dental Program ends 31 December 2018. If you are using this program, you will need to find replacement dental insurance. You may be eligible for FEDVIP. Check out this program at tricare.benefeds.com. If you are using TRICARE Select or Prime, and want to make any changes to your coverage, that must be done during the Open Season that runs from 12 November to 10 December. Research your options at tricare.mil/openseason.
The North Carolina news is less encouraging for us. The General Assembly adjourned the 2017-18 Session without passing any of the veteran and retiree tax relief measures we tracked for the last two years. It remains to be seen if any of these measures will be introduced again next year and if any NC veterans groups (including MOAA) will engage with our candidates and legislators on these issues.