9 January 2018 Washington Update

 Inside this issue
TREA: The Enlisted Association’s Washington Update
TREA: The Enlisted Association’s Washington Update
Congress is Back –  With a Lot to Do
The Senate and the House are both back in session for 2018.  They face a looming deadline of January 19 to either pass a government funding bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2018 or a shutdown of the government.  That’s because they haven’t been able to come up with a funding bill for the entire 2018 fiscal year, even though they were supposed to have done that by last October 1.

 

What they have done twice now, is pass “Cr’s” – continuing resolutions, that fund the government for a limited period of time, at 2017 funding levels.  That’s why they now fact the January 19 deadline.

 

Prior to the end of 2017 they did manage to pass the fy2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  It contained the following provisions that affect military people:

 

A 2.4-percent active duty pay raise

 

Unchanged Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) calculation.  This is inspite of the effort in the Senate change the calculation for BAH in a way that would have negatively impacted servicemembers, particularly dual military families.

 

TRICARE Increases

 

There will be progressive year-over-year increases in pharmacy copayments. TRICARE users will see steady increases in their co-payments across all medication tiers.

This is another example of forcing military people to pay more for their health care in order to pay for other items in the defense budget.  According to DoD, the TRICARE increases will “save” DoD more than $2.1 billion by 2022 and fund improvements in military readiness and the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA). Most of the increases will be through the retail pharmacy sector, but beneficiaries still can obtain medications at military pharmacies for free. The new fees will include mail-order generic prescriptions as well. (please see below for more detail.)

 

Additionally, outside of the NDAA provision, the Defense Health Agency has introduced a new TRICARE fee structure that will be applied to the new TRICARE Select option. Increased fees also will apply to the existing TRICARE Prime option. You can view these changes at https://tricare.mil/About/Changes/Costs.

Lessens the “Widows Tax”

This provides a permanent extension to the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA). Without congressional action, 67,000 military survivors would have lost $2,100 in 2018 when the allowance was set to expire in May.  After that they would have lost over $3,700 a year.

TREA is very disappointed that Congress has once again chosen to penalize military people by raising TRICARE fees and we are concerned that there may be another effort this year to raise fees once again.

Retirees over the age of 65 escaped any increase in fees but that doesn’t mean there won’t be an attempt this year to also make them pay more.

 

TREA will be fighting hard to stop any more increases in TRICARE fees of any kind and we will keep you posted on this as the year progresses.

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Sometimes Legislation Isn’t Enough
This past weekend an article appeared on TheHill.com concerning the Trump Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs. (The Hill is a newspaper written for and distributed to members of Congress and their staffs.  It is not a government paper.)

It concerned a video that President Trump tweeted out last week about the accomplishments so far of his administration with regard to the VA and was written by Rory E. Riley-Topping, a lawyer who worked for Republicans on the Committee on Veterans Affairs in the House of Representatives.  She also has served in a legal capacity for the Veterans Legal Services Program, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

 

In her article, Riley-Topping stated, “In Trump’s video, he specifically mentions eight veterans-related accomplishments; four signed pieces of legislation, two proclamations, one executive order, and one initiative. Although these measures are certainly accomplishments for an administration that has had difficulty executing many of its other major campaign promises (repealing and replacing ObamaCare being the most glaring example), it is important to acknowledge that legislation alone does not produce a significant shift in culture or fix a broken bureaucracy.”

 

She explained that her purpose in writing her article was not to criticize the President but to point out something very crucial when it comes to making changes at the VA.

 

“In other words, legislation is a starting point, but not an ending one; while legislation is often a catalyst toward reform, true reform does not take place until those that the law impacts truly accept and embrace it – in other words, when cultural change has happened.

 

“We are already starting to see signs of culture shifting within the VA, although not at a pace that most on the ground would like to see, which is unfortunately typical when dealing with government agencies. When the Phoenix VA wait-list scandal broke in 2014, veterans and whistleblowers received an opportunity to be heard by the public and partake in deliberations and conversations on the future of what the VA-system should look like.

“Unfortunately, the initial results of these conversations often entailed whistle-blower retaliation, including some reports that the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection actually accentuated, rather than alleviated, retaliation problems by allowing VA to keep an internal database of those who spoke out against the agency.”

She then added this: “In other words, legislation is a starting point, but not an ending one; while legislation is often a catalyst toward reform, true reform does not take place until those that the law impacts truly accept and embrace it – in other words, when cultural change has happened.”

We’re writing about this because it’s important to understand about how large government agencies function.  TREA works hard to represent you and make both the VA and DoD more responsive to you and your needs and make sure that the promises made to you by our government are kept.

 

But as Ms Riley-Topping says, it frequently takes more than legislation alone.

We will keep fighting for you to get legislation passed whenever it is needed, and to defeat any legislation that harms you.  But sometimes, even when we win passage of needed legislation, things take time to actually change.

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Reminder: Changes Coming to TRICARE
On Feb 1, 2018, copayments for prescription drugs at TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery and retail pharmacies will increase. These changes are required by law and affect TRICARE beneficiaries who are not active duty service members.

While retail pharmacy and home delivery copayments will increase, prescriptions filled at military pharmacies remain available at no cost. However, you should remember that the drug formularies at MTFs are much more limited than the mail order or civilian drug store formularies. If they have the drugs you need you  can save the most money by filling your prescriptions at military pharmacies.

“Military pharmacies and TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery will remain the lowest cost pharmacy option for TRICARE beneficiaries,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ann McManis, Pharmacy Operations Division at the Defense Health Agency.

Using home delivery, the copayments for a 90-day supply of generic formulary drugs will increase from $0 to $7. For brand-name formulary drugs, copayments will increase from $20 to $24, and copayments for non-formulary drugs without a medical necessity will increase from $49 to $53.
At a retail network pharmacy, copayments for a 30-day supply of generic formulary drugs will increase from $10 to $11 and from $24 to $28 for brand-name formulary drugs.

In some cases, survivors of active duty service members may be eligible for lower cost-sharing amounts.

TRICARE groups pharmacy drugs into three categories: generic formulary, brand name formulary and non-formulary. You pay the least for generic formulary drugs and the most for non-formulary drugs, regardless of whether you get them from home delivery or a retail pharmacy.

To see the new TRICARE pharmacy copayments visit www.tricare.mil/pharmacycosts. To learn more about the TRICARE Pharmacy Program, or move your prescriptions to home delivery, visit www.tricare.mil/pharmacy.

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Tax Cuts – How Do They Affect You?
This article ran at the end of last year, but with the signing of the 2017 Tax bill by President Trump it seemed like a good idea to make sure everyone had an idea about what was in it.

To find out how much you’ll be paying in federal taxes, go here: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-new-trump-tax-calculator-what-do-you-owe-2017-10-26

TREA: The Enlisted Association’s Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders met with members of Congress and the Senate, as well as officials at the White House for the last several months to try to get the perspectives of TREA, and enlisted personnel in general, in front of decision-makers.

Here is what was in the final bill:

  • The corporate rate would be reduced to 21%, from 35%. That is an additional point added from the 20% originally proposed in the House and Senate versions. It would take effect in 2018.
  • The top individual tax rate would be set at 37%, down from the 39.6% proposed in the House and 38.5% in the Senate.
  • The State and Local Tax deduction will be expanded, beyond just property taxes, to include income tax. It would be capped at $10,000.
  • The corporate alternative minimum tax, included at the last minute in the Senate version, would be fully repealed.
  • The individual alternative minimum tax would remain, but the threshold would be tweaked to exclude any individual under $500,000 or family below $1 million.
  • The mortgage interest deduction threshold — dropped to $500,000 in the House and left untouched in the Senate — would be set at $750,000.
  • The rate for pass-through income — business entities like s-corporations and partnerships that pay taxes through the individual side — would be set at 20%, 3% lower than the Senate version.
  • The estate tax exemption would be doubled, but the tax would not be repealed entirely, as it was in the House proposal.
  • The Obamacare individual mandate to have health insurance would be repealed.
  • A House provision that proposed taxing graduate school tuition is not included in the final deal.
  • Federal student loans that are forgiven due to death or due to a determination of total disability (by the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs) will no longer be considered taxable income. This is a long-time goal of TREA and is a major win. However, the provision, just like all of the tax cuts involving individual income taxes, will expire at the end of 2025.

These deductions will remain untouched (they were all repealed in the House bill, but were left alone in the Senate bill and the Senate side won). Of note, repeal of these deductions were some of the most controversial elements of the House plan. None will be repealed in the final version:

  • Medical expense deduction (the deduction will kick in for expenses totaling 7.5 percent of income instead of 10 percent, but only for the next two years. This provision is aimed at people who have unusually large medical bills, –  8.8 million Americans use it, half with annual incomes under $50,000)
  • Tax-free graduate school tuition waivers
  • Private activity bonds
  • Student loan interest deduction
  • Teacher spending deduction
  • The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (VOW To Hire A Hero Act): this is something that TREA believes leads to increased veteran employment; it was repealed under the House version but the Senate version won out, meaning that the provision will live until at least the end of 2019 (a big win for unemployed veterans and for TREA).
  • Tax exclusion from gain of sale of a principal residence: the House version required 5 years of residency, up from two; the Senate also required 5 years, but in the end nothing changed – it is still 2 years.
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Press Release: President Donald J. Trump signs Executive Order to Improve Mental Health Resources for Veterans Transitioning from Active Duty to Civilian Life
Today, President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Order titled, “Supporting Our Veterans During Their Transition From Uniformed Service to Civilian Life.” This Executive Order directs the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security to develop a plan to ensure that all new Veterans receive mental health care for at least one year following their separation from service.

The three departments will work together and develop a Joint Action Plan to ensure that the 60 percent of new Veterans who currently do not qualify for enrollment in healthcare – primarily due to lack of verified service connection related to the medical issue at hand – will receive treatment and access to services for mental health care for one year following their separation from service.

“As service members transition to Veteran status, they face higher risk of suicide and mental health difficulties,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David J. Shulkin. “During this critical phase, many transitioning service members may not qualify for enrollment in health care. The focus of this Executive Order is to coordinate Federal assets to close that gap.”

The Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security will work to expand mental health programs and other resources to new Veterans to the year following departure from uniformed service, including eliminating prior time limits and:

  • Expanding peer community outreach and group sessions in the VA Whole Health initiative from 18 Whole Health Flagship facilities to all facilities. Whole Health includes wellness and establishing individual health goals.
  • Extending the Department of Defense’s “Be There Peer Support Call and Outreach Center” services to provide peer support for Veterans in the year following separation from the uniformed service.
  • Expanding the Department of Defense’s Military One Source (MOS), which offers resources to active duty members, to include services to separating service members to one year beyond service separation.

“We look forward to continuing our partnership with the VA to ensure Veterans who have served our country continue to receive the important mental health care and services they need and deserve,” said Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

“The Department of Homeland Security is where many Veterans find a second opportunity to serve their country – nearly 28 percent of our workforce has served in the armed forces, in addition to the 49,000 active-duty members of the United States Coast Guard,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

“This critically important Executive Order will provide our service members with the support they need as they transition to civilian life. These dedicated men and women have put their lives on the line to protect our nation and our American way of life, and we owe them a debt we can never repay. We look forward to working with the VA and DOD to implement the president’s EO,” said Secretary Nielsen.

“In signing this Executive Order, President Trump has provided clear guidance to further ensure our Veterans and their families know that we are focusing on ways to improve their ability to move forward and achieve their goals in life after service,” said Secretary Shulkin.

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