Wounded Warrior Bill Win on Horizon – S 1606 Makes it Through Conference Committee

Army Times

Congress OKs new pay and benefits provisions

[VCS Note: VCS worked very hard on key passages of this critical legislation.  We await word on the final details of the bill and how it will be implemented when it becomes law, as expected.] 

Friday, December 7, 2007 – After months of bickering, congressional negotiators have approved a $696.3 billion defense policy bill that includes a 3.5 percent military pay raise, improvements to treatment and benefits for wounded combat veterans, and precedent-setting changes in reserve retired pay and survivor benefits.

The agreement comes in time for Congress to pass it, and President Bush to sign it, before the Dec. 31 expiration of a variety of recruiting and retention benefits, including enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses — as long as no surprises pop up when lawmakers take the required final votes on the measure.

The pay raise, the wounded warrior assistance package, the more generous reserve retirement plan and a monthly increase in survivor benefits are all examples of congressional initiatives that were opposed by the White House and Pentagon, but which lawmakers felt were needed in time of war.

Under the agreement struck Dec. 6, active and reserve members would get a 3.5 percent increase in basic pay and drill pay Jan. 1, an amount 0.5 percentage point more than the Bush administration proposed. The White House sought a 3 percent increase that would have matched average private-sector wage growth last year.

But negotiators dropped a House plan that would have provided raises in 2009 through 2012 that also would have been modestly higher than civilian wage growth, something White House and defense officials said was overly generous and would take money from other priorities.

However, lawmakers stood firm against continued administration calls to raise Tricare premiums and retail pharmacy co-pays for many beneficiaries. As they did last year, negotiators banned such increases for fiscal 2008.

A large section of the bill, the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act, is a congressional response to complaints from combat-injured troops about cumbersome policies regarding treatment of injuries, the process for determining whether they can stay in the military, the benefits they get if they separate, and the transfer of their health care from the military to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bill orders the creation of a Wounded Warrior Resource Center to serve as the main point of contact for troops and families for questions about health care and benefits. The bill also orders the Pentagon and VA to set common standards for disability evaluations, develop a common policy for care and management of those injured in war, and find a way to share electronic medical records — a longstanding complaint.

It also orders an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act to give people caring for combat-injured troops up to 26 weeks of unpaid time off, twice the amount currently allowed.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., House Armed Services Committee chairman, said he hopes the provisions on combat-injured troops would “restore confidence in the quality of care and service received by wounded warriors and their families.”

And Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said Congress is not finished. He said his committee plans to do even more next year, particularly in smoothing the transition of injured troops between military and VA care facilities. A key issue is to “make sure that VA has the resources it needs to care for our returning service members and the veterans from previous conflicts,” Filner said.

Negotiators approved a Senate proposal to allow some National Guard and reserve members to draw military retired pay earlier than the current age 60, and a House-passed plan to provide $50 per month to survivors to partly make up for the offset in military survivor benefits required of those who are also eligible for VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. The payment would rise to $100 in 2014.

Negotiators decided that military retirees with VA disability ratings of less than 100 percent who are nevertheless considered fully disabled because they cannot work should be treated the same as other 100 percent disabled retirees when applying to concurrently receive their full military retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation.

And lawmakers ordered that people who are medically retired before completing 20 years of service also should qualify for “concurrent receipt.”

The reserve retirement plan would allow a reservist to begin drawing retired pay 90 days earlier than age 60 for every 90 days of mobilization.

Pentagon officials argue the change would encourage experienced reservists to leave service. But supporters, led by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said a more generous system is only fair, considering the increased burden on Guard and reserve members since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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