Author : jason-van-steenwyk

Navy SPECOPS Teams Told to Stop Wearing “Don’t Tread on Me” Flag

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com_don't-tread-on-me-SEALs-patchBecause we all know that if there’s one thing special operators absolutely religiously adhere to, its regulations on the wear and use of utility uniforms. 

According to one report in the conservative Daily Caller, an email went out through Navy petty officer support channels directing Navy personnel to cease and desist wearing the Naval Jack or Gadsden Flag patches on their uniforms – something apparently traditionally done by Navy SEALs. 

Both flags feature a rattlesnake and the words “Don’t tread on me.” It was not immediately clear which flag the Navy operators wear, though the Naval Jack is more closely identified with naval tradition. In fact, a Navy-wide directive instructs all U.S. Navy ships to fly the Naval Jack for the duration of the War on Terror

But someone in the Chuck Hagel Department of Defense or Obama’s White House is now having second thoughts about the flag.

The Naval Jack dates back to 1775, though the earliest versions did not include the snake or the description: Just 13 alternating red and white stripes. The snake and inscription appear to have been added sometime before 1880.  

A March 2010 order, NAVADMIN 116/10 specifically authorizes the wear of the Naval Jack “Don’t Tread on Me” flag or patch for Naval personnel assigned to or serving with Army units at the discretion of the local Army commander. 

It is not clear why Navy officials made this change, and whether the change was specific to certain commands within the Navy or will be implemented Navy-wide. 

VA Proposes Change in Appeals Process

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com US Dept of Veterans AffairsThe Department of Veterans Affairs is proposing a change in the way it handles appeals, according to a recent entry in the Federal Register. According to the VA’s proposal, “there are two major components of these proposed changes. The first is to require all claims to be filed on standard forms prescribed by the Secretary, regardless of the type of claim or posture in which the claim arises. The second is to provide that VA would accept an expression of dissatisfaction or disagreement with an adjudicative determination by the agency of original jurisdiction (AOJ) as a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) only if it is submitted on a standardized form provided by VA for the purpose of appealing the decision, in cases where such a form is provided. The purpose of these amendments is to improve the quality and timeliness of the processing of veterans’ claims for benefits.”

The public has 60 days to comment on the change before it becomes official. VA executives can then enact the new policies as written, make changes based on the public’s input as well as their own judgment, or scrap the plan altogether. You can read the full proposal and comment on it by clicking on the link above.

 

Will you comment on the proposed changes? Let us know what you say to the VA in the comments below.

VA Health Care and ObamaCare – What Veterans Need to Know

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com VA health care and obamacareFirst, the easy part: If you are enrolled in TRICARE, you do not need to do anything different under the Affordable Care Act. Your TRICARE benefits are fully qualified under the terms of the ACA and you don’t need to take any action as long as you are in TRICARE. 

 

ACA Penalties

For honorably discharged veterans, however, the situation is quite a bit more complicated. Unless you meet certain unusual conditions* the Affordable Care Act requires you to obtain a qualified health insurance policy by March 31, 2014. If you fail to do so, you will be subject to a fine of $95 per adult individual and $49 per family member, up to a max of $285 per family, or 1 percent of family income – whichever is greater. 

After Jan 1, 2015, those penalties go up sharply: To $325 per adult and $162 per child, up to a family maximum penalty of $975, or 2 percent of annual income, whichever is less. 

The penalty increases again on January 1, 2016. The penalty for that year is $695 per adult and $347 per child, up to $2,085 per family, or 2.5 percent of income, whichever is greater. 

 

I’m a Veteran. Does VA Insurance Count? 

Yes, VA insurance counts. But you actually have to enroll in the VA health program to have it qualify. It is not sufficient just to be a veteran. You must take positive steps to make sure you’re enrolled with the VA. Not everybody qualifies. For example, if you’re a Guard or Reserve member, and you’ve never been mobilized, and your only active duty time was for training, you don’t qualify for VA coverage. 

Generally, you will qualify if you either served 24 consecutive months on active duty, or for the full period for which you were called for active duty if you were mobilized, and you enlisted after September 7th, 1980. 

However, if you didn’t make 24 consecutive months, or had to leave duty early because of a wound or service-related injury, you can still qualify. You aren’t going to get disqualified just because you got hurt. 

 

How to apply for VA coverage.

You aren’t automatically covered just because you are an honorably-discharged veteran, even if you meet the criteria. To enroll, visit the VA Benefits Explorer page on the Web. From that page, you can do a trial run to see if you qualify for VA coverage, and specifically what benefits and price structure you qualify for. (There are no premiums for VA coverage, but you will have to pay some copays and there are limits). 

 

What about family members?

In most cases, the veteran’s family members will not qualify to enroll in the VA health care system. Spouses and children will generally need to obtain qualifying coverage, either through an employer plan or through an individual plan. The individual plan can be purchased either via the online exchanges or through a licensed health insurance agent. 

 

VA Priority Groups

If you qualify, the VA will assign you to one of eight priority groups, based on your location, income and the nature of your service. If you qualify for more than one group, the VA will put you in the higher of the available groups. The groups are listed below: 

Priority Group 1

  • Veterans with VA Service-connected disabilities rated 50% or more.
  • Veterans assigned a total disability rating for compensation based on unemployability.

 

Priority Group 2

  • Veterans with VA Service-connected disabilities rated 30% or 40%.

 

Priority Group 3

  • Veterans who are former POWs.
  • Veterans awarded the Purple Heart Medal.
  • Veterans awarded the Medal of Honor.
  • Veterans whose discharge was for a disability incurred or aggravated in the line of duty.
  • Veterans with VA Service-connected disabilities rated 10% or 20%.
  • Veterans awarded special eligibility classification under Title 38, U.S.C., § 1151, “benefits for individuals disabled by treatment or vocational rehabilitation.”

 

Priority Group 4

  • Veterans receiving increased compensation or pension based on their need for regular Aid and Attendance or by reason of being permanently Housebound.
  • Veterans determined by VA to be catastrophically disabled.

 

Priority Group 5

  • Non-service-connected Veterans and noncompensable Service-connected Veterans rated 0%, whose annual income and/or net worth are not greater than the VA financial thresholds.
  • Veterans receiving VA Pension benefits.
  • Veterans eligible for Medicaid benefits.

 

Priority Group 6

  • Compensable 0% Service-connected Veterans.
  • Veterans exposed to ionizing radiation during atmospheric testing or during the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • Project 112/SHAD participants.
  • Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975.
  • Veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations from August 2, 1990, through November 11, 1998.
  • Veterans who served in a theater of combat operations after November 11, 1998, as follows:
  • Veterans discharged from active duty on or after January 28, 2003, for five years post discharge

 

Priority Group 7

  • Veterans with incomes below the geographic means test (GMT) income thresholds and who agree to pay the applicable copayment.

 

Priority Group 8

  • Veterans with gross household incomes above the VA national income threshold and the geographically-adjusted income threshold for their resident location and who agrees to pay copays.

 

Veterans eligibility for enrollment:

Noncompensable 0% service-connected and:

  • Subpriority a: Enrolled as of January 16, 2003, and who have remained enrolled since that date and/ or placed in this subpriority due to changed eligibility status.
  • Subpriority b: Enrolled on or after June 15, 2009 whose income exceeds the current VA National Income Thresholds or VA National Geographic Income Thresholds by 10% or less

 

Veterans eligible for enrollment:

Nonservice-connected and:

  • Subpriority c: Enrolled as January 16, 2003, and who remained enrolled since that date and/ or placed in this subpriority due to changed eligibility status
  • Subpriority d: Enrolled on or after June 15, 2009 whose income exceeds the current VA National Income Thresholds or VA National Geographic Income Thresholds by 10% or less

 

Veterans not eligible for enrollment:

Veterans not meeting the criteria above:

  • Subpriority e: Noncompensable 0% service-connected
  • Subpriority g: Non-service-connected

 

*Exceptions apply if you are: 

  • A member of a religious group that is opposed to accepting benefits from an insurance policy
  • You are an illegal alien
  • You are incarcerated
  • You are a member of an Indian tribe
  • Your family is below the income threshold for filing an income tax return ($10,000 per individual and $20,000 for family members starting in 2013)
  • You have to pay more than 8 percent of your income for health insurance, net of any tax credit or employer contribution. 

 

You may also be exempt if: 

  • You were enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) at any time during the year
  • You’re enrolled in TRICARE
  • You’re in an employer-sponsored plan
  • You have insurance of your own that is “Bronze” level or better,
  • You have a grandfathered health plan that was in existence prior to the ACA. 

 

Under the ACA, income is defined as total income in excess of the filing threshold. The penalty is pro-rated by the number of months without coverage. There is no penalty for gaps of 3 months or less. The penalty cannot be greater than the national average cost of a Bronze-level plan offered on the exchanges. (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation).

USAA Prepared to Extend Credit to Members if Debt Ceiling Affects Military Pay

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com debt ceiling military payUSAA, the popular financial services firm catering to military members, veterans and their families, is prepared to extend credit if the debt ceiling affects military pay, the company has announced. 

The debt ceiling is the total limit on outstanding federal borrowing as authorized by Congress. The Treasury Department has projected that unless Congress extends the federal limit on borrowing. 

If it doesn’t, the U.S. Treasury must make scheduled interest and principal payments on outstanding bonds, but it cannot borrow additional money except as debt is paid off. This would likely force the federal government to cut or eliminate a significant percentage of its day-to-day spending. Nearly everything is on the table – including military pay. 

The Treasury Secretary expects the Treasury to run out of creative financing options on the debt as of Thursday, 17 October. At that point, we may begin seeing paychecks to servicemembers, Social Security beneficiaries, federal employees, and even disabled individuals qualifying for VA benefits shorted or zeroed out until further notice. 

Should that occur, USAA has indicated it will offer zero-interest payroll advance loans to members of the military – including members of the National Guard and Reserves. The offer also extends to military retirees and veterans receiving VA benefits. 

The catch: You have to have been receiving these benefits via direct deposit at USAA Federal Savings Bank, or another USAA account. You have to have already received at least two direct deposit accounts over the past 60 days into your USAA account. The total maximum loan under this program is $6,000 per member. 

The maximum loan amount, initially, will be the amount of a bi-monthly direct deposit, or half of the deposit, for those paid monthly. 

 

Additional measures

USAA has also indicated it is willing to work with affected members in arranging deferrals on some bank loan payments. It may also refund some fees, provide extended or flexible terms on insurance payments, and allow for penalty-free withdrawals of funds from certificates of deposit. Any loans with payments deferred would continue to accrue interest. 

Loan proceeds will be credited to the USAA bank account, and will be debited upon the next scheduled direct deposit date. 

USAA expects to email those eligible. If you receive an email – or believe you should have received an email – visit the USAA website at USAA.com and visit the My Offers section of the site.

 

Our take

Making this a zero-interest loan is a very generous offer – but it also underscores the advantage of doing business with a financial services firm with a mutual structure. While there are variations on the specifics, USAA is jointly owned by its members. It does not trade shares on the exchanges, nor is it owned by outsider stockholders who expect to receive dividends every year. This gives its directors the freedom to make decisions that are strictly in the best interests of their members. 

The members believed that extending this benefit was more valuable to members during a crisis than an increased dividend payment down the road. 

We agree and applaud USAA for taking this stand – as well as having the foresight to raise capital in advance to fund it. 

That said, USAA members still need to be careful: This is not an open-ended loan. Under the terms already specified, it’s limited to about 2-weeks direct deposit, or $6,000, whichever is less. 

USAA has not committed to deferring the collection until after the debt ceiling is authorized – assuming Congress does authorize an increase – and normal payroll and benefits disbursal is restored. If USAA zaps those accounts, as scheduled, but funding to pay salaries and benefits is not fully restored, members could still find themselves in a bind. 

Even under the best of circumstances, unless Congress approves back pay, members could still find themselves in a tight spot. If you get advanced a two-week direct deposit, and USAA zaps your account two weeks later for the amount funded, you’ve just delayed the problem by two weeks. It’s not this week’s deposit that gets cleaned out – it’s the next one. So this loan doesn’t do much but give you a little breathing room, and a couple of weeks to figure things out.

Should We Use Marijuana to Treat PTSD?

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com medical marijuana for ptsdIn a move that could cause a massive eastward migration of veterans from Hawaii and California and boost New England Cheetos sales numbers by double digits, the State of Maine has authorized the use of medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. 

A competing therapy – thus far legal, though not yet proven – involves injecting an anesthetic directly into the spine with a horse needle.

We’ll take option A, thanks, and throw in a bag of Doritos. 

Don’t look for the Bangor, Maine VA clinic to start handing out dime-bags like it’s going out of style, though. While a number of states have actually legalized marijuana under their own state laws, and a half-dozen states have specifically authorized medical marijuana as an approved treatment for PTSD, old Mary Jane is still illegal under federal law. Federal policy prohibits VA doctors from prescribing it or even assisting with documentation required to get other doctors to prescribe it. 

Furthermore, marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I drug – a drug for which there are “no currently accepted medical uses,” according to the Controlled Substances Act. However, in 2010 and 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs relaxed its existing policies against medical marijuana by affirming that veterans who were using marijuana under a legal state program could still participate in VA-sponsored therapeutic activities without fear of punishment.

“VHA policy does not administratively prohibit Veterans who participate in State marijuana programs from also participating in VHA substance abuse programs, pain control programs, or other clinical programs where the use of marijuana may be considered inconsistent with treatment goals,” stated the VA in a fit of clarity.  “While patients participating in State marijuana programs must not be denied VHA services, the decisions to modify treatment plans in those situations need to be made by individual providers in partnership with their patients.”

 

Leadership from the Top

If there’s ever been a president who should be open to legalizing marijuana for this purpose, you’d think it would be Barack Obama, the notorious former head of the pot-smoking “Choom Gang,” while a high school student at the elite Punahou prep school in Honolulu, Hawaii. But this President has been widely seen to have led a crackdown on marijuana users now that he is president. Further confusing the matter, though, the DoJ announced it won’t challenge State marijuana laws and will focus only on serious trafficking cases.

Is marijuana effective? It seems to be – though conducting a full-scale clinical trial is very difficult due to federal restrictions. But a study done on rats from the University of Haifa indicates that a quick hit of marijuana just after a traumatic incident may even help prevent the development of PTSD symptoms…if you believe that people behave like rats. 

Meanwhile, the folks down the road in Tel Aviv have discovered that sleep deprivation may also help mitigate the effects of PTSD.

 

How do you feel about medical marijuana and its potential usefulness in treating PTSD? Should research be allowed despite it being an illegal drug? Tell us in the comments.

UPDATE: Obama Signs Death Benefit Bill into Law

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com_Obama-signs-death-benefits-billPresident Obama has signed a law authorizing the payment of death benefits and gratuities. The bill reached his desk after receiving overwhelming votes in both houses of Congress. 

The President’s spokesperson, Jay Carney, had earlier stated that the law was “gimmicky” and “unnecessary,” because the Fisher House had already agreed to front the necessary cash to military families who have lost a servicemember. 

President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate have been resistant to partial funding measures passed by the House to fund other areas of government, and event to bills that would fund everything but delay the individual mandate to buy health insurance in the Affordable Care Act for one year.  

Thus far, the House has been loathe to pass anything with funding for Obamacare as is in it, while the Senate and the President have opposed passing or signing anything without it. The three exceptions so far have been the Pay Our Military Act, a law authorizing retroactive payment to furloughed federal workers once the government revs up again, and this one.

Obama Rejects Death Benefits Bill

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com obama rejects death benefits billPresident Obama has rejected a bill passed by both houses of Congress that would fund the death gratuity and death benefits normally paid out to beneficiaries of deceased servicemembers. 

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill that would authorize the Secretary of Defense to pay the two benefits: A tax-free $100,000 death benefit and an additional $10,050 death gratuity. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent. 

All the bill needs is the President’s signature to become law. 

The White House, however, opposes the measure, calling it “gimmicky” and “unnecessary.” White House spokesperson Jay Carney has said that the bill is “unnecessary” because the well-known military charity, Fisher House, has agreed to front the necessary money until the government is funded again.

Fisher House’s offer would cover the two government-funded death benefits (but not SGLI life insurance death benefits), plus necessary travel and lodging expenses associated with the death of the servicemember, burial and memorial activities, etc. Families often travel to Dover Air Force Base to receive their loved one’s remains as they are flown back to the United States. 

My view: The President’s actions in opposing this bill, passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses, is petty, vindictive, ridiculous and destructive. Signing the bill into law would not alter the larger logic of either the shutdown or the looming debate over the debt limit, scheduled to come to a head over the next week. 

Moreover, unless the DoD is willing to pay Fisher House or another charity an above-market rate of interest, it’s a waste of capital. Fisher House has better uses for its capital than to provide no or low-interest rate loans to the government, and the money that Fisher House has tied up awaiting government funding could be used to fund a new house or provide additional beds in shortage areas, or to fund more follow-on services to wounded veterans transitioning to life in their home towns, far from VA hospitals or military bases. 

Instead this capital is being diverted to do a vital job that the President, throwing a temper tantrum, refuses to do, despite the overwhelming majority of both houses of Congress, and the overwhelming sentiment of the American people. 


What do you think about this rejection of the bill? Is it justified since Fisher House has stepped in or is it an insult to our servicemembers and an irresponsible move by the government? Tell us in the comments!

VFW “Disgusted” With Current Elected Leadership

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com veterans of foreign wars shutdown statementThe Veterans of Foreign Wars has released a statement saying it is “disgusted” with the current crop of politicians in Washington. “Yesterday’s news that the government will not transport or make a death assistance payment to grieving military families was the last straw,” the statement read. “It is absolutely appalling and nothing short of a travesty that elected officials continue to receive paychecks and benefits while not providing for those who deserve it most.”

The statement, attributed to the VFW’s National Commander, William A. Thien, went on: “Because of failed leadership, we have 56 closed Department of Veterans Affairs regional offices, 7,000 furloughed employees, and more than 4 million disabled veterans and survivors who were told next month’s disability or survivor benefits check will be delayed. We also have a hypocritical National Park Service that closes our nation’s war memorials to veterans and a federal government that continues to make foreign aid payments while our own national security is threatened because Congress has failed to pass a defense budget or put an end to the sequester. 

This is totally unacceptable and disgraceful that our elected leaders in Washington would allow this to happen,” said Thien. “We need leadership, not more rhetoric, and if the government is unable to take care of veterans, then the government should quit creating us.”


VA Secretary: Benefits to Cease November 1 If Shutdown Not Resolved

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com shinseki VA shutdown November  1 testimonyVA benefits will cease as of November 1st, unless the President and Congress agree to fund the agency, or the government shutdown is resolved. That was the testimony on Wednesday, October 9th, from Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. 

According to Secretary Shinseki, the Department of Veterans Affairs is due to pay out $6.25 billion in claims on November 1. But the Department has only $2 billion on hand to pay them with. The money would be used to pay tuition for GI Bill beneficiaries and for retroactive claims. Stipends of up to $1,700 per month for veterans attending school would cease. Claims processing for compensation, pension, education, vocational rehabilitation, and employment benefits will be suspended due to lack of funding. Once mandatory funds are depleted at the end of this month, nearly 5,600 Veterans a day will not receive a decision on their disability claims.

This is despite furloughing some 7,800 claims processors – an act that is already beginning to result in an increase in the stubborn backlog of past-due (more than 125 days old) claims. Half of those furloughed are veterans themselves, said Shinseki. 

Additionally, if the shutdown continues through late October, compensation payments to more than 3.8 million Veterans will halt. These include thousands of Veterans who have the most severe disabilities. Payments will also stop for over 364,000 survivors and over 1,200 children receiving special benefits, such as children with spina bifida born to Vietnam Veterans and certain Korean War Veterans as well as children of women Veterans with birth defects, the Secretary said. Furthermore, pension payments will stop for almost 315,000 Veterans and over 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents.

The Secretary also said that while they still had 13,000 claims processors on the job, paid with left-over funds from FY 2013, that money would be exhausted by the end of the month. At that point, the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to lay off all but 1,500 employees. The remaining workers would be assigned to staff call centers and receive and time-stamp new benefits applications. But no more applications will be processed until the Department is funded again. 

The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would provide for partial funding of the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D – Nevada) has indicated that his coalition will not allow the bill to come up for a vote. The President has also said that he would veto the bill if it came to his desk. 

According to Shinseki’s testimony, however, full services to veterans would not restore completely even if the Department itself is fully funded. This is because the Department’s functions integrate with other federal departments that are themselves affected by the shutdown. 

Shinseki’s full testimony is available here.


Government Stiffs Gold Star Families

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com hagel no death gratuity gold star families shutdownThe families of at least seventeen American servicemen and women who lost their lives in Afghanistan since October 1 have not yet received their death gratuity payments. This money, amounting to $100,000 per individual, plus an additional death benefit of $10,050, is normally paid out via wire transfer within a couple of days of a servicemember’s death. However, the Department of Defense has announced it has no plans to pay the benefit – unless Congress first changes the law. 

At issue: A technical reading of the Pay Our Military Act, a law that passed both houses of Congress last week and gained the President’s signature. 

The Secretary of Defense has announced that because of the way the law was written, he has no legal authority to pay death gratuity benefits, nor any other benefits payable to the families of military servicemembers, as opposed to the servicemembers themselves. 

Congressional Republicans, for their part, argue that the Secretary’s interpretation of the law is flawed, and that he should pay the benefits immediately. Season to taste with partisan vitriol. 

Who’s right?  

The Secretary, in this case. 

Why? We simply refer to the plain text of the law, which only authorizes payment to three categories: 

    • Members serving under Title 10 orders, including reserve component servicemembers. 
    • Payments made to DoD and Department of Homeland Security personnel providing support to members of the Armed Forces (which the law restricts to those serving under Title 10 orders)
    • Payments to contractors providing services to the same group of servicemembers as above. 

 

That’s it. 

Nothing in the law specifies a Congressional authorization for payments to family members. 

The law also halts the free transportation of family members of deceased to Dover AFB to receive the remains of their loved ones. 

The House expects to have an additional appropriations bill allowing the payments up for a vote by the end of the week.

Democrats have not as yet said they will support the bill. They have announced opposition to other separate appropriations bills over the last week, preferring to hang on to their bargaining power for a larger deal. 

However, they readily passed the Pay Our Military Act at the first opportunity in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the President quickly signed it. Our projection is that this is not the hill the Democrats want to die on, and that the additional appropriations will be passed quickly. 

That’s cold comfort to these families, though, who need the cash now. Families who lose loved ones frequently have to take extensive time off work, travel, sometimes buy suits, rent facilities for memorial services, and have a variety of other expenses. SGLI may or may not be a suitable replacement. For example, it may take longer to pay out, or it may go to a different individual than the death gratuity. In the worst-case scenario, the servicemember may choose not to take out an SGLI policy and keep a few extra dollars per month. In that case, the family is left only with the death gratuity. 

To add insult to injury, the Secretary of Defense is saying the payment of residual unpaid pay and allowances, or income in respect of a decedent, is not authorized by Congress, either.