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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 Allows Doctors to Discuss Medical Marijuana with Patients

medical mj

By Debbie Gregory.

Advocates of medicinal marijuana use for veterans believe in its effectiveness in treating chronic pain. Now the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has authorizes its physicians and care teams to speak openly with veteran patients about their marijuana use.

Currently, VA doctors cannot prescribe medical cannabis, but thanks to VHA Directive 1315, in states where medical marijuana is legal, VA providers can discuss marijuana use with veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.

Veterans enrolled in a state-approved medical cannabis program can discuss their marijuana use so that their doctor can make adjustments to the treatment plan.

The new policy is likened to the VA removing its proverbial head from the sand.

“It not only encourages, but really mandates that their physicians and primary care teams have healthy and in-depth knowledge-based conversations with veterans about cannabis use for whatever ailment their suffering from,” said Lou Celli, the director of national veterans affairs and rehabilitation division at American Legion.

Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance — “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Veterans groups say the fastest and most effective way to help veterans get access to treatment is to simply reschedule the drug. That would automatically lift the most onerous barriers to research and allow VA health care providers to immediately prescribe marijuana in states where it is legal.

“We’ve got young men and women with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries coming to us and saying that cannabis works,” said Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the American Legion.

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.

Pentagon Plans Changes to Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability

post

By Debbie Gregory.

While most people know that the GI Bill is administered and paid for through the Department of Veterans Affairs, what most people probably don’t know is that the Defense Department controls the transferability of the benefit. And the DoD is planning some changes to that transferability.

The transferability option under the Post-9/11 GI Bill allows servicemembers to transfer all or some unused benefits to their spouse or dependent children. Current GI Bill policy allows service members with at least six years of service to transfer their benefits to a dependent, provided they agree to serve four more.

The request to transfer unused GI Bill benefits to eligible dependents must be completed while servicing as an active member of the Armed Forces.

Anthony Kurta, currently the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the department intends to issue a policy change affecting the transferability of benefits, which will be limited to service members with less than 16 years of total service.

The addition of a cap to one aspect of the GI Bill doesn’t sit well with veterans who recently fought for a provision in the new Forever GI Bill that lifted a 15-year time limit on the benefit.

“As a matter of principle, the American Legion is against anything that would degrade a veteran’s current benefit,” said American Legion spokesman Joe Plenzler.

With that said, as the transferability only applies to active duty servicemembers, this change should have no impact on veterans.

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.

Lawmakers Want to Reduce the Number of VA Facilities

vava

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs are taking a hard look at VA facilities across the country to determine which ones have been outlived their usefulness. Many aging and underused facilities could be subject to closure.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said that the agency is considering a plan to close more than 1,100 facilities across the country, given that the VA continues to allow a larger number of veterans access to private sector health care.

Shulkin told a House hearing that the department has identified 735 underused facilities. There are also 430 empty buildings, most of which were constructed around 90 years ago.

Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat, want to create a paid commission to recommend which facilities should be closed.  Their bill, the Asset Infrastructure Review Act (AIR) is in its early stages. As it is currently written, the bill would require Shulkin publish the criteria to be used in choosing which facilities to close, modernize or realign in the Federal Register by January 15, which is less than two months away.

Shulkin said the VA and Congress would work together to review buildings for possible closure, possibly using a process like Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), which the Pentagon has used in the past to determine which underutilized military bases should be closed.

But the BRAC process has been controversial, raising concerns among members of Congress about the negative financial impact of closing military bases in their districts.

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.

Millions in Settlements Paid to Problem Employees by VA

Togus

By Debbie Gregory.

You wouldn’t think doctors, nurses, and other medical workers would be classified as “problem employees.” But many former medical professional employees have cost the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) over $6 million.

A recent investigation has uncovered that the VA, the nation’s largest employer of healthcare workers, has concealed the mistakes and misdeeds of its staff for years.

Examples include a VA radiologist who had misread dozens of CT scans at a VA hospital in Washington State, and a podiatrist who had 88 cases where mistakes that harmed veterans at the Togus hospital in Maine were made.

Citing inadequate performance, hundreds of VA employees were fired or forced into early retirement. But they fought back in the legal arena.

In just those two years, 230 settlement deals were made to pacify problem employees. These settlements were withheld from the public. In some of those cases, the employees receiving the settlements were whistle-blowers, or were wronged by the VA. But in the remaining cases, the employees were the problem.

Because the settlements were reached in secret, there is no official word as to why the VA determined that the employees should be fired or forced to resign.

According to the VA website, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs wants to demonstrate accountability and transparency regarding settlements with employees. To that end, on July 7, 2017, Secretary Shulkin announced that he is requiring approval by a senior official of any monetary settlement with an employee over the amount of $5,000.

Any settlement above this amount will require the personal approval of the Under Secretary, Assistant Secretary or equivalent senior-level official within the organization in which the dispute occurs.

“We’re changing to a culture of accountability at VA, and this is an important step in that direction,” Shulkin said.

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.

Veterans Identification Card, Courtesy of Office Depot?

id card

By Debbie Gregory.

The Veterans Identification Card Act of 2015 was enacted so that veterans who weren’t entitled to military retired pay nor enrolled in the VA health-care system could prove their veteran status without having to carry their DD214s.

As the Department of Veterans Affairs prepares to accept applications for the new cards in November, questions remain: will veterans need cellphone contracts in order to enter an online national registry, a step that must be completed before they can even apply for the cards? Will the VA enter into sponsorships with private companies to produce the cards? Will the cards carry corporate logos on them?

But probably the most confusing part of the act is the stipulation that the VA must issue hard-copy photo IDs to any veteran who applies and pays a fee. The law does not stipulate that an honorable discharge is required. So will the ID cards be available to veterans with bad paper discharges? Because when the VA begins accepting applications for the cards in November, veterans with less-than-honorable discharges will not be eligible to apply.

Wait, what?

According to VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour, “Only those Veterans with honorable service will be eligible for the ID card.”

Apparently, only veterans with honorable discharges are eligible to register for and receive an ID during the first phase. Perhaps future phases will be more inclusive. Who knows? And apparently, the ID card will be brought to veterans courtesy of Office Depot!

AMVETS has tweeted images of the new ID card, which carries an Office Depot logo on the back, along with “Saluting you today and every day. Thanks for taking care of business.”

Cashour said that Office Depot is absorbing the cost of making the cards, so that veterans can receive them without having to pay for them.

To apply for one of the new ID cards, you will need to apply online, although the specific website has not been announced. You must also register with Vets.gov, a website that authorizes users through third-party verification company ID.me, to support identity and authentication.

Will VA Scrap Ethics Law That Safeguards Veteran Students?

va seal

Debbie Gregory.

Statute 38 U.S.C. 3683 is an ethics law that prohibits Department of Veterans Affairs employees from receiving money or owning a stake in for-profit colleges.

But the VA is now pushing back, claiming that the 50-year-old statute is redundant due to the other conflict-of-interest laws that apply to all federal employees and provide sufficient safeguards.

You may be wondering why this is important.

Veteran advocacy groups believe that doing away with the law would make it easier for the for-profit education industry to exploit veterans with their rich GI Bill benefits.

There is mounting concern that suspending the statute would make it possible for high-ranking agency officials to enact policies that benefit for-profit schools in which they have a financial interest.

“The statute is one of many important bipartisan reforms Congress implemented to protect G.I. Bill benefits from waste, fraud, and abuse,” said William Hubbard of Student Veterans of America. “A thoughtful and robust public conservation should be had to ensure that the interests of student veterans is the top of the priority list.”

“Congress enacted a zero tolerance for financial conflicts of interest for VA employees precisely because Congress uncovered massive fraud by for-profit colleges targeting veterans.”

“Student veterans were already facing an aggressive rollback of their protections under the Trump administration’s Education Department,” said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success.  The non-profit group works to protect and defend the integrity and promise of the GI Bill and other federal education programs for veterans and servicemembers.

The law already provide measures for any employee that it covers to receive a waiver if they can prove that there is no conflict of interest and that whatever arrangement they have or had will not be a detriment to veterans.

The VA proposal is set to go into effect on October 16 unless the agency “receives a significant adverse comment” by or on that date.

Unfortunately, to date, no such comments have yet been submitted nor have any public hearings been scheduled.

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.

Protecting Veterans from High-Pressure Mortgage Refinances

refi

By Debbie Gregory.

After volunteering to protect their country, servicemembers and veterans are often targeted by disreputable forces at home: predatory lenders.

Government-owned Ginnie Mae, whose purpose is to make mortgages more affordable, is conducting an investigation into unscrupulous mortgage lenders who allegedly pressured servicemembers and veterans into unneeded mortgage refinances.

Ginnie Mae backs loans made through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Under investigation are lenders who push consumers to refinance loans over and over again in a short period of time, a practice known as churning.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, an outspoken critic of the finance industry sent a letter to Ginnie Mae’s Acting President, Michael Bright, asking whether some lenders were abusing Ginnie Mae’s program by engaging in aggressive marketing tactics.

Bright replied that Ginnie Mae and the Department of Veterans Affairs have created a task force to address abusive practices by lenders approved to issue Ginnie Mae-backed bonds.

VA loans do not require a down payment and closing costs are added to loan balances, so borrowers don’t have to pay them at the time of the sale. But this also makes these loans prime targets for churning.

Some lenders are persuading servicemembers to refinance loans at rates that barely reduce their mortgage payment.

Ginnie Mae has been trying to slow down the refinancing rush by putting a six-month moratorium between new mortgages and a refinance.

However, once the six-month mark passed, Bright said Ginnie Mae saw a blitz of lenders once again preying on servicemembers. Bright said that some lenders apparently targeted veterans for a refinance at “six months and one day.”

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.