Early Medical Retirement Can Put Servicemembers’ Pensions At Risk

Early Medical Retirement Can Put Servicemembers’ Pensions At Risk

Early Medical Retirement Can Put Servicemembers’ Pensions At Risk

By Debbie Gregory

Life in the military isn’t easy, but if you serve long enough, the financial rewards are generous. Military pension benefits, after 20 years of service, are 50% of the final salary, paid for the rest of the rest of the servicmember’s life.

But that same pension can vanish if a servicemember is forced out of the military for health reasons.

When a military member has a medical condition (including mental health conditions) which renders them unfit to perform their required duties, they may be separated (or retired) from the military for medical reasons.

Until recently, if military members left before 20 years of service, they didn’t get any pension benefit. This leads to what’s known as “cliff vesting” around the 20-year mark. Given the obvious dangers inherent in the service, and the stress it puts on families, attrition is steep in the early years.

U.S. Code 1176 protects servicemembers nearing 20 years of service, and retirement eligibility, from being discharged or denied reenlistment without just cause. But unfortunately, it doesn’t extend to medical cases.

Military medical retirement is intended to compensate for a military career cut short because of disability. Typically, a medical retirement is issued when a medical condition is severe enough to interfere with the proper performance of your military duties.

For servicemembers who have less than 20 years of service, to be permanently retired, they must be found unfit due to a “stable” condition rated at 30% or higher. Stable means unlikely to change enough to qualify for a revised disability rating.

Retirement pay will be the retired base pay multiplied by the percentage assigned to the disability. Retired base pay is calculated by averaging the highest 36 months of basic pay.

 

Is Privatization of the VA an Option?

MCPrivateVA

Is  Privatization of the VA an Option?

By Debbie Gregory

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been offering care since the World War II era, starting with the then-Veterans Administration’s Hometown Program that began in 1945. Now there is talk abounding that the VA is headed towards privatization. But exactly what is the definition of what privatization of the VA would be?

On the VA website, an article titled “Debunking the VA Privatization Myth” quotes House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Phil Roe saying, “If we’re trying to privatize, we’re not doing a very good job,”…”We’ve gone from 250,000 employees in the VA in 2009 to 370,000 employees, and we’ve gone from a $93.5 billion budget to what the president’s asked this year is $198 billion. It sounds like we’ve been an utter failure if we’re trying to privatize.”

About $72 billion of VA’s budget this fiscal year goes to medical care, and the department has more than 1,200 medical facilities nationwide. But veterans groups contend that the increase has more to do with inflation and increased demands on the VA than anything else.

There is bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill to any type of privatization efforts.

During his failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Dr. Ben Carson floated the idea of issuing health care vouchers to veterans, allowing them to choose where to have their care.This would be similar to the  Veterans Choice Program, one of several VA programs through which a Veteran can receive care from a community provider, paid for by VA.

For example, if a veteran needs an appointment for a specific type of care, and the VA cannot provide the care in a timely manner or the nearest VA medical facility is too far away or too difficult to get to, then a veteran might be eligible for care through the Veterans Choice Program.

Veterans must receive prior authorization from the VA to receive care from a provider that is part of VA’s VCP network of community providers. The authorization is based on specific eligibility requirements and discussions with the veteran’s VA provider.

The battle over privatization will depend on how much medical care should go outside the department’s existing infrastructure, and what counts as too much reliance on the private sector.

Touro University Worldwide- Educating Those Who Serve

 touro updated logo 2018

The GI Bill is one of the most amazing benefits offered to those who serve. By using this benefit, veterans can earn a degree or vocational certificate, get paid while in school, and jump-start their post-military lives.

Touro University Worldwide (TUW) understands the importance of educating our country’s active military students and veterans who are preparing to enter the civilian workforce. To that end, in addition to government funding options, TUW offers discounts to to those who serve, past and present, as well as extending the benefit to their families.

Many Touro academic staff members are also veterans, and since they have walked the walk, they can provide support and guidance through the military aligned students’ academic journeys.

While there are thousands of schools throughout the country that would like to be on the receiving end of the tuition funding that military and veterans bring via the GI Bill, TUW has a tradition of commitment to their military and veteran students.

Make this the year that you get started earning the degree that will give prepare you for an exciting career in business, psychology or health and human services.  Apply the skills and knowledge you acquired in the military to a bachelor’s or master’s degree with in-demand concentrations like: Cybersecurity Management, Global Management, Nonprofit Management, Human Resources Management and many more!

You’ve always risen to the challenge, make this the year that you pursue and complete your degree!

For more information, visit www.tuw.edu

Why Veterans Succeed in College Now More Than Ever Before

Blog Columbia Southern

In the past, graduation rates for veterans were significantly lower than those of traditional students. However, a major 2011 study by the Student Veterans of America revealed that the opposite was true. In fact, veterans are graduating at a rate close to that of more traditional students: an average 51.7 percent for veterans in comparison to 59 percent for other students, as of 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In some branches of the armed services, graduation rates are even higher. Air Force veterans, for example have the highest graduation rate of all the military branches at 67 percent.

Clearly, veterans are succeeding in college more than ever before. Colleges have made great strides in eliminating many of the barriers that have stood between veterans and their academic success, and continue to find ways to provide more support for their needs.

What’s Holding People Back?

Most researchers involved in the analysis of veteran’s issues in education note that the challenges that veterans face are similar to those faced by nontraditional students, such as those who return to school after several years in the workforce or who have financial or family obligations that keep them from devoting all of their attention to school. However, former military personnel also have unique challenges including PTSD, social or financial challenges. These are just a few of the obstacles that veterans have historically faced when seeking education. However, many colleges and universities have taken steps to become more military friendly, and develop degree programs for veterans that ensure their success.

How Colleges Are Helping

Colleges and universities have recognized the challenges facing their military veterans, and are developing programs and resources to support their success.

For example, many colleges are opening veteran’s centers designed to provide guidance and support in all aspects of the transition from military to civilian life. Some universities are also offering more flexible options for earning degrees that better align with veterans’ needs and preferences. Online classes, fast track degree programs that offer credit for skills and education gained in the military, and open or rolling enrollment schedules are just some of the ways that universities are offering flexible options and making it possible for veterans to fit education in with their other responsibilities.

Above all, veterans are succeeding in college due to a growing acceptance of their presence and value to the overall college experience. In short, veterans are quickly becoming an important part of the student population, and schools are doing more to provide the support they need.

To learn more about the benefits for veterans at Columbia Southern University, visit ColumbiaSouthern.edu/Military.

Executive Order Expands Mental Health Benefits to Combat Veteran Suicide

mental healthy

By Debbie Gregory.

“Supporting our Veterans during their Transition from Uniformed Service to Civilian Life” is an executive order that aims to reduce veteran suicides.

Focusing on soon-to-be former service members, all recently separated veterans (except those with a bad paper, less than honorable discharges) will be entitled to one year of mental health screening. The VA launched a separate program offering emergency mental health services for veterans with bad paper discharges.

Beginning March 9th, transitioning veterans will receive one year of mental health care through the Veterans Health Administration, either at a VA facility or at a private facility, based on wait times where you live.

“As service members transition to Veteran status, they face higher risk of suicide and mental health difficulties,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin. “During this critical phase, many transitioning service members may not qualify for enrollment in health care.”

This means that VA mental health care will now be available to the 60% of transitioning veterans who are currently ineligible for long-term VA medical benefits, usually because they didn’t serve in a combat zone or don’t have a verified service-connected disability.

Signed by President Trump, the order requires that within 60 days of the January 9th signing, “the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall submit to the President, through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, a Joint Action Plan that describes concrete actions…” that will address access and resources to address the suicide issue.

Within 180 days, a status update on the Joint Action Plan must be submitted to the president.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

IRRRL Facts for Veterans

homeowner

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is often praised for the education benefits given to those who have served. But just as important, the VA strives to help servicemembers, veterans, and eligible surviving spouses obtain veteran home loans so that they may become homeowners.

An Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan (IRRRL), often referred to as a “Streamline” or a “VA to VA” loan is a great option for providing veteran home loans.

A VA veteran loan provides a home loan guaranty benefit and other housing related programs to help buy, build, repair, retain, or adapt a home for personal occupancy. These loans are obtained through private lenders such as banks and mortgage companies. The VA guarantees a portion of the loan, enabling the lender to provide more favorable terms.

Except when refinancing an existing VA guaranteed adjustable rate mortgage to a fixed rate, it must result in a lower interest rate. When refinancing from an existing adjustable veteran home loan to a fixed rate, the interest rate may increase.

To decide whether it is beneficial to refinance your veteran home loan, the general rule of thumb is that if you can refinance and reduce your interest rate by 1% then it is something worth considering. However, it’s important to consider other factors, such as closing costs and how long you plan on living in the property.

An IRRRL may be done with “no money out of pocket” by including all costs in the new loan or by making the new loan at an interest rate high enough to enable the lender to pay the costs, but you must NOT receive any cash from the loan proceeds.

The occupancy requirement for an IRRRL is different from other VA veteran home loans. When you originally got your VA loan, you certified that you occupied or intended to occupy the home. For an IRRRL you need only certify that you previously occupied it. The loan may not exceed the sum of the outstanding balance on the existing VA loan, plus allowable fees and closing costs, including funding fee and up to two discount points.  You may also add up to $6,000 of energy efficiency improvements into the loan.

One more thing to keep in mind is that an IRRRL can only be made to refinance a property on which you have already used your VA loan eligibility. It must be a VA to VA refinance, and it will reuse the entitlement you originally used.

Lenders are not required to make you an IRRRL, however, the lender of your choice may process your application for an IRRRL, and you do not have to go to the lender you make your payments to now or to the lender from whom you originally obtained your VA Loan.

Also keep in mind that the ability to reduce the term of your loan from 30 years to 15 years can save you a lot of money in interest over the life of the loan, if the reduction in the interest rate is at least one percent lower. But this will more than likely result in a large increase in your monthly payment.

Veterans are strongly urged to contact several lenders. There may be big differences in the terms offered by the various lenders you contact.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

VA Faces Challenges to Implement “Forever” GI Bill

forever gi bill snip

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has said it is facing problems implementing some parts of the Harry J Colmery GI Bill, better known as the “Forever GI Bill”.

Recently separated veterans may be getting inaccurate information about their education benefits in the mail, potentially causing “mass confusion” among veterans about their eligibility due to outdated IT systems, Veterans Affairs officials admitted.

The Forever GI Bill, which was signed into law in August, not only removes the 15 year time limitation that newer veterans have to use their GI Bill, but it also gives back GI Bill entitlement to some veterans who were in schools that closed mid-term. The new regulation gives back any GI Bill that was used to take classes that resulted in no academic credit due to no fault of the veteran. This part of the law is retroactive to 2015 and affects over 8,000 veterans.

Although the VA has reached out to veterans eligible for this benefit, only about 250 of the affected veterans have applied for the restoration of their GI Bill.

Additionally, it extends benefit eligibility to more guard and reserve members, and it creates a new program for STEM students in addition to 30 other changes.

To meet the goals of launching the program, the VA will and spend some $70 million and hire 200 temporary workers to manually process claims until they can get their software changes implemented.

The VA is trying to avoid encountering problems like those that occurred back when the Post-9/11 GI Bill began in 2009. At that time, the VA got so backlogged in making payments they were forced to issue emergency checks of up to $3,000 to veterans who had waited months for their GI Bill payments.

The Forever GI Bill contains the most sweeping expansion of veterans education benefits in a decade. Most of the bill’s provisions go into effect Aug. 1, 2018.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Merger of VA and DoD Health Systems Being Considered

vatricare

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides healthcare to veterans through medical centers and clinics owned and run by the federal government, although veterans can also see private doctors through the Choice if VA wait times are too long. The Department of Defense provides healthcare to current servicemembers, retirees and their families through TRICARE,  insurance that is paid for by the government and uses private doctors and hospitals.  But soon, the two may be one and the same.

The VA generally serves older, sicker veterans, while TRICARE’s patients are generally healthier.

VA Secretary David Shulkin has been exploring the option of integrating VA and Pentagon health care. This follows the VA’s planned adoption of utilizing a similar electronic health record (EHR) platform as the Defense Department’s MHS GENESIS.

“VA’s adoption of the same EHR system as DoD will ultimately result in all patient data residing in one common system and enable seamless care between the Departments without the manual and electronic exchange and reconciliation of data between two separate systems,” said Shulkin.

Since an overhaul of VA’s EHR won’t be completed for another seven to eight years, a TRICARE merger would more than likely take at least as long.

News of the plan is worrying various veterans groups. The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS and Disabled American Veterans have expressed that a TRICARE merger is likely to be a “non-starter” if the goal is to transform VA care into an insurance plan.

Louis Celli, director of veterans’ affairs and rehabilitation for The American Legion, said outsourcing services away from the current VA system via its medical centers and clinics would be financially unsustainable.

Bob Wallace, the executive director of VFW’s Washington office  said that his organization  would oppose any effort to reduce the VA’s role of providing care for veterans.

What do you think?

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Colorado VA Used Forbidden Lists of Patients Wanting Mental Health Car

Denver VA

By Debbie Gregory.

A Veterans Administration (VA) investigation has revealed that VA facilities in Denver, Golden and Colorado Springs failed to follow proper protocol when keeping tabs on patients who sought referrals for treatment of mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The “off-book” lists did not always contain complete information or request dates, calling into question whether veterans requesting care received it and how long they had to wait for it.

Unofficial wait lists have been used by VA health care facilities elsewhere. The discovery of the lists created a nationwide scandal in 2014 when 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments at a Phoenix VA hospital.

Whistleblower Brian Smothers said the problems found in Colorado reach across the VA system. He worked on the VA’s PTSD support team in Denver and said he resigned in November 2016 after he was retaliated against for speaking up.

Smothers alleges that Colorado VA facilities in Denver and suburban Golden used unauthorized wait lists for mental health services from 2012 until last September. He said the longer that veterans have to wait for mental healthcare, the less likely they are to use it when it becomes available.

“It was totally unacceptable to me,” he said.

Smothers estimated the lists contained 3,500 entries but did not know how many individual veterans were on them because some names appeared multiple times. It was not immediately clear how long veterans on the lists had to wait for care.

Unofficial wait lists have been used by VA health care facilities elsewhere. The discovery of the lists created a nationwide scandal in 2014 when 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments at a Phoenix VA hospital.

According to Smothers, “VA management knew that these wait lists were absolutely forbidden.”  “But they directed the use of these wait lists anyway.”

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Allegations of Skimming Impacts VA’s Private Healthcare Providers

gypped

By Debbie Gregory.

TriWest Healthcare Alliance and Health Net Federal Services, the companies charged with administering private health care options for veterans, are both under investigation for over-billing the government by tens of millions of dollars.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, expected to cost taxpayers $10 billion has come in closer to $12 billion to date, and that between the two companies, they have collected at least $89 million more than what they were supposed to.

The VA Choice program was launched during a very rough time for the VA Health System, when allegations of misuse, misconduct, claim backlogs and long wait times for veterans seeking treatment at its facilities were every day occurrences. It was created as an emergency stopgap to serve patients who were waiting weeks or months to see doctors in a backlogged VA healthcare system.

To alleviate part of the problem,  if the VA is unable to schedule an appointment for a veteran within a month, or if a veteran lives more than 40 miles from one of its clinics, they can access a network of private clinicians and hospitals managed by TriWest and Health Net.

An audit revealed that both companies billed the VA for more than what they paid medical providers, charged different rates other than what was contractually set up, submitted duplicate bills for the same services, and billed for medical services already covered by private health insurance.

TriWest maintains they have done no wrong, blaming the VA’s billing system for the overpayments. But this isn’t the first time TriWest has been investigated for mismanaging government funds. In 2011, the company paid the Justice Department $10 million to settle a lawsuit that the company systematically defrauded the government.

Inspector General Michael Missal estimated that, in duplicate payments alone, Health Net and TriWest overbilled taxpayers by $89.7 million.

Health Net was instructed to reimburse $50.8 million; TriWest allegedly owed $38.9 million.

Both TriWest and Health Net’s current contracts will run for the next 10 months.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.