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Will the military ‘widows tax’ disappear this year?

Widows Tax


Cathy Milford has been fighting against the military “widow’s tax” for 25 years, and said it’s always an emotional drain.

“This is just an awful thing to do,” she said after a Capitol Hill rally Tuesday pushing for a fix on the issue. “Every time I talk about this, I have to dig my husband up and bury him all over again.”

Her husband, Harry, retired from the Coast Guard just a few months before suffering a fatal aneurysm. The couple would have celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.

Instead, she’s spending time on Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers on problems with military and Veterans benefits for surviving spouses. Milford is one of more than 65,000 individuals nationwide hurt by the issue, costing each an average of $11,000 each year.

“I could have well paid off my house with that over the years,” Milford said. “And I worry about the other families who need that money. I don’t like to come up (to Washington, D.C.) to talk about this, but who are they to ignore me and these problems?”

Advocates are optimistic that this could be the year they fix them. So far, nearly 300 House lawmakers and 68 senators have signed on to legislation correcting what they call “a grave injustice” against grieving military and Veterans families.

The problem rests with how the government treats two separate survivor payouts.

The first, the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program, awards around $15,000 a year to survivors of Veterans or troops who die of service-related causes. There is no cost to troops or families to enroll.

The other, the Survivor Benefit Plan, gives families of military retirees who enroll up to 55 percent of their loved ones' retirement pay after the Veteran dies. The life insurance-type payouts are subsidized by DoD, but require enrollees to pay-in part of their retirement benefit to be eligible.

Individuals who qualify for either SBP money or DIC benefits receive full payouts from the respective programs. But family members who qualify for both are subject to an offset, where for every dollar paid out in DIC their payouts under SBP are reduced by one dollar.

That costs those families up to $1,000 a month in payouts advocates insist they deserve. Some families have avoided the offset penalty by transferring benefits into their children’s accounts, but that creates other complicated tax issues.

Lawmakers passed a partial solution two years ago, extending a stipend to cover some of the offset, but advocates have said that a full solution needs to be a congressional priority.

“Some of our families have been waiting over four decades for this moment in time,” said Bonnie Carroll, founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors.

“It’s important to remember that military spouses move every few years with their service members and face unemployment rates up to four times higher than their civilian counterparts. (This money) is essential to their financial security.”

The legislation — introduced by Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala. — does not yet have a price tag or a funding mechanism to cover the estimated $5.7 billion cost of ending the SBP-DIC offset problem. In past years, paying for the benefits has been the largest barrier in legislative success.

But Jones and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said they believe there is momentum to act on the issue this year.

“This is incredibly unfair,” Risch said at the Capitol Hill rally. “There isn’t anyone who would look at this and not say that it’s just flat wrong, for people to pay premiums on an insurance policy and not be able to collect because the government is too greedy.”

Advocates have several events planned this week to raise awareness on the issue and lobby for quick action on Jones’ bill. Milford said she hopes this is the last time she’ll have to beg lawmakers to take action.

“I’m tired of hearing how much this is going to cost,” she said. “How much have they saved already by taking our money away?”


Bill HR 2333 is a good step to helping curb Veteran suicide

Curb Vet Suicide


Last week, the bipartisan Support for Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act was introduced by Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), and co-sponsored by Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Mike Bost (R-Ill.). As a woman who served three tours, I breathed a sigh of relief seeing Congress step up and take action to begin to address our nation's worsening crisis of not properly treating Veterans with PTSD which has led to an epidemic of suicides.

The bill will require a review of the current training, workload and staffing at Veterans Affairs centers and comes a month after President Trump signed an Executive Order titled "National Initiative to Empower Veterans and End Veterans Suicide." According to the White House, this order mandates the establishment of the Veteran Wellness, Empowerment and Suicide Prevention Task Force. The task force will include the secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy, Homeland Security, Labor, Education and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, assistant to the president for national security affairs, and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD? It's a psychiatric condition in people who experienced or witnessed a traumatic event like a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war, combat, rape or any other violent personal assault. PTSD used to be called "shell shock" during the first World War and then it was known as "combat fatigue" after World War II. But it doesn't only affect combat Veterans. PTSD shows up in anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, nationality or culture. Close to 3.5 percent of U.S. adults have PTSD. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD. Those of us who've had it can experience intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to our experience that last long after the traumatic event has happened. Unfortunately, PTSD is the No. 1 cause of Veteran suicides.

Recently, the media has highlighted a bump in suicide rates at VA hospitals, especially three cases in Texas and Georgia over a 5-day time period earlier this month. The VA has released data showing 23 Veterans took their own lives at VA facilities since October of 2017.

One issue, I personally experienced while visiting the VA, is that psychological help or counseling is only available once, and not with regularity or continuity. Just one and done.

All the way back in 2014, news of secret waiting lists for Veterans to get a medical appointment at Veterans Administration facilities was revealed. An audit unearthed rampant problems, including the fact that more than three quarters of VA hospitals and clinics had manipulated data about wait times. At the time, allegations arose about whether these secret delays led to 40 Arizona Veterans dying from lack of timely medical care by the VA. The controversy led to the resignation of then Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The main focus in all of this discussion has got to be on the tragic suicide epidemic that claims 22 Veterans lives every single day.

Over the past 17 years, more than 8,000 U.S. casualties have occurred in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Compare this to 8,000 Veterans per year committing suicide.

The real question is why don't we consider Veterans who take their own lives as important as soldiers who die in combat?

While deployed I watched wonderful Americans die serving our country. I also know many Veterans I personally fought alongside of who require regular monthly medical care for the trauma we experienced being on the battlefield.

The truth is we have to diligently raise awareness of military mental health concerns, improve access for to care during and after military service, and stop turning a blind eye to Veterans who never thought they would end up back home wondering why they're having crazy thoughts.

I would like to give a special thanks to Rep. Banks from my home state of Indiana for making this matter a top priority instead of just a campaign promise. Legislation is direly needed to enforce that my brothers and sisters are cared for after risking our lives for the rest of the nation.


Legislation adds nine diseases to list of illnesses caused by Agent Orange

Nine Diseases AO


Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle introduced new legislation called the Keeping Our Promises Act that would add nine medical conditions to the list of illnesses that result from Agent Orange exposure.

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark. Co-sponsors include Reps. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., Scott Tipton, R-Colo., Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., Brendan Boyle, D-Penn., Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Ann Kuster, D-N.H.

Military Veterans Advocacy: Agent Orange effects go beyond Vietnam

The conditions joining the list include prostate cancer, bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension, stroke, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, AL amyloidosis, ischemic heart disease, and Parkinson-like syndromes. Research from the National Academy of Medicine has found evidence that all but one of these conditions (hypertension) can be linked to Agent Orange exposure.

Study finds link between high blood pressure, Agent Orange exposure

The U.S. military sprayed herbicides, including Agent Orange, over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 in order to clear the dense tropical foliage that was providing cover for enemy troops. Thousands of service members were exposed to the toxins. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report in November of 2018 that concluded there was sufficient evidence to link high blood pressure with exposure to Agent Orange.

Veterans exposed to Agent Orange on the ground and inland waterways while in Vietnam can receive health care and compensation from the VA. Thanks to a recent court ruling, those benefits may be extended to Blue Water Vets with qualifying diseases who served aboard ships stationed offshore during the Vietnam War.



PFAS Exposure


Legislation Requires Department of Veterans’ Affairs to Cover Health Conditions Linked to PFAS Chemical Contamination on Military Bases

Congressman Dan Kildee (MI-05), U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and members of the PFAS Task Force today introduced legislation to ensure that veterans and their families exposed to toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals at military installations get the health care services and benefits they need through the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA).

The Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act (VET PFAS Act) would require the VA to cover treatment for any health condition found to be associated with exposure to PFAS exposure. Under this bill, illnesses connected to PFAS exposure will also be considered a service-connected disability, making veterans exposed to PFAS eligible for disability payments and medical treatment from the VA.

“When someone signs up to serve in the military to defend our country, we make a promise to take care of them when they come home,” Congressman Kildee said. “This bill makes good on that promise, making sure that all service members exposed to harmful PFAS chemicals get the health care and support they need. I am proud to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate as we fight to clean-up PFAS chemical contamination at military bases and get veterans the health care they have earned.”

“Our veterans shouldn’t have to stand at the back of any line for their health care, especially when they face health risks because of their service,” said Senator Stabenow. “Our bill makes sure veterans and their families harmed by PFAS chemicals will be eligible for treatment and benefits from the VA.”

“Our nation’s heroes and their families who were unknowingly exposed to PFAS contamination deserve access to care,” said Senator Peters. “We know exposure to PFAS can have very dangerous health consequences. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this legislation, and I will continue working to address PFAS contamination.”

“For the brave servicemembers who put their life on the line for our country, we owe it to them to ensure that their health needs are taken care of,” said Senator Casey. “This legislation works to ensure that vets suffering as a result of PFAS exposure can get the treatment they need at the VA. I urge my colleagues to support this important measure.”

The VET PFAS Act is also sponsored by Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Elissa Slotkin (MI-08), Congressman Andy Levin (MI-09), Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Congressman Ro Khanna (CA-17), Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (MI-14), Congresswoman Haley Stevens (MI-11), Congresswoman Lori Trahan (MA-03), Congressman Antonio Delgado (NY-19), Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small (NM-02), Congressman Chris Pappas (NH-01), Congressman Brendan Boyle (PA-02), Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18), Congresswoman Madeleine Dean (PA-04), Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Congressman Andy Kim (NJ-03) and Congresswoman Anne Kuster (NH-02).

“Military families give up a lot in service to our country and freedoms, they don’t deserve increased risk of serious health concerns,” said Dingell. “If someone gets sick because they grew up or lived on a military base, they shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of those medical costs. It’s just not right. This important bill gives health and disability benefits to veterans and their families to cover health conditions known to be associated with PFAS exposure.”

The military uses PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam on military bases. According to health experts, these chemicals are dangerous to human health and many veterans have been exposed as part of their military service. Moreover, around many military bases, PFAS chemicals have leached into the groundwater making the surrounding drinking water unsafe for nearby residents.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act included a nationwide health study on the impacts of PFAS on service members and their families and it was funded by the Fiscal Year 2018 Appropriations bill secured by Congressmen Kildee, Senator Stabenow and Senator Peters. Once completed, the health conditions the study shows are linked to PFAS will be required to be covered by the VA.

In addition, the VET PFAS Act covers the following conditions pursuant to a previously conducted study of 68,000 people in West Virginia: high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.


Senate approves military burn pit awareness bill

Burn Pit Awareness Bill


The Vermont Senate approved a measure Thursday to raise awareness about the health hazards military personnel suffer from exposure to open burn pits while serving overseas.

A 30-0 vote came after the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Jeanette White, cried and stopped several times as she recounted to senators the emotional testimony her committee had heard.

White spoke haltingly as she recalled the words of June Heston, the widow of Brig. Gen. Mike Heston, who died of cancer last November, and retired Sgt. Wesley Black, a 33-year-old fighting colon cancer who described himself as a “dead man walking.” Both served overseas on deployments where burn pits were used to dispose of a variety of refuse, ignited with jet fuel.

White, D-Windham, the chair of Senate Government Operations, said she didn’t want to get emotional laying out the reasons for S. 111, “but our meetings were anything but.”

“I do apologize,” White said after stopping her presentation to regroup. “I didn’t think I’d do this.” She was reassured by presiding officer Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.

The toxins from the fumes, White said, pervade the body.

“It is in their skin, their lungs, their eyes, their whole body. It has become a part of them,” White said.

She said she was oblivious to the issue until told about Heston in December.

“In my 16 years in the Senate, there have been many issues that have been emotional and passionate. But in all those years, this is the one that makes me really angry and really sad,” White said.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the only other senator who spoke, recalled Heston’s two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Heston was deployed three times to Afghanistan and worked as close as 300 yards from open burn pits.

“To watch his body disintegrate in front of our eyes was quite horrific,” Benning said.

The bill aims to raise awareness in the medical community and among Veterans about the health problems from burn pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. It encourages military members who served in those areas to sign up for a national registry where the Veterans Administration is tracking health problems.

White and members of her committee said a goal of increasing awareness was to have the federal government acknowledge the connection between burn pits and health problems sooner than it admitted Agent Orange caused health problems for military members who served in Vietnam.

She said Vermont lawmakers couldn’t influence military policy on using burn pits, but “sometimes a groundswell can make a difference.”

“Perhaps our small step…might make a difference,” White said, telling senators that other state legislators have requested the bill and the number of Vermonters on the national registry has increased 10 percent to just under 400 since the bill was introduced in January.

The bill will go to the House after a final Senate vote. House leaders have promised the bill will be taken up this session, even though it did not meet the crossover deadline, according to White.


New Agent Orange bill introduced

New AO bill


Another Agent Orange legislation aimed to grant herbicide exposure recognition to military Veterans who served on Guam and other U.S. territories is slated to get introduced in the U.S. Congress.

The Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Herbicide Relief Act would grant presumptive herbicide exposure status to U.S. service members who served on Guam, in American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and Johnston Atoll, according to a release from Del. Michael San Nicolas.

San Nicolas and Florida Rep. Gus Bilirakis are introducing the bill.

The measure comes after the publication of a Government Accountability Office report reaffirming the use of herbicides on Guam, including the toxic component of Agent Orange.

However, the report did not conclude that Agent Orange itself was used on the island.

The bill is named after Kilpatrick, a Navy Veteran who served on Guam and died after Veterans Affairs misdiagnosed diseases related to herbicide exposure, the release states.

"After a fight lasting several years, he was granted service-connected compensation shortly before his death. His last words, 'Make it count,' have become the rallying cry of the Guam Veteran community," the release stated.

A similar bill named after the late Master Sgt. Leroy Foster, who claimed to have sprayed Agent Orange on Guam, fell through during the last Congress.

San Nicolas will be holding a townhall event on March 18 from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at his district office in Agana.

He will discuss various issues, including the military buildup, labor shortages, war claims and Agent Orange.


House bill strengthens Burn Pit Registry

Burn Pit Registry


WASHINGTON — The House unanimously approved a bill this week to make the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry a more useful tool for researching the health effects of toxic exposure on servicemembers and Veterans.

The House passed the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act on Wednesday with a vote of 416-0. It would allow family members of deceased servicemembers and Veterans to enter cause of death in the registry. As of now, only registered individuals are allowed to update their health information.

The change was recommended by Veterans groups, including Burn Pits 360, which has expressed concerns that the registry hasn’t been used to his fullest potential.

“According to Burn Pits 360, without tracking [causes of death] ... the registry’s ability to establish mortality rates related to conditions and diseases associated to toxic exposure will be precluded,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Pits were used until 2010 at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to burn trash, human waste, petroleum, rubber and other debris, releasing hazardous fumes into the air. Some servicemembers exposed to the smoke have attributed medical conditions, such as respiratory issues and cancer, to it.

The burn pit registry, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, was created in 2014 to collect health information voluntarily from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. It includes more than 170,000 troops.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, both medical doctors, lead the congressional Burn Pits Caucus and sponsored the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act. While lawmakers approved the bill Wednesday with little controversy, Ruiz is setting his sights on more drastic changes –- and he’s anticipating a fight with the VA.

“The burn pit registry is a proactive thing Veterans can do to feel empowered and share information, to have a communication mechanism,” Ruiz said. “The registry is not an end-all.”

In the next two or three months, Ruiz plans to introduce more legislation to secure benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits, he said.

One bill would place Veterans with exposure to burn pits into priority group six for VA health care. When Veterans try to enroll for VA health care, they’re placed into priority groups based on their need. Burn pit exposure is not part of that arrangement.

Group six now includes some Vietnam Veterans, along with those who served in the Persian Gulf War and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Another bill Ruiz is drafting would add lung diseases from burn pit exposure to a list of conditions presumed to be caused by military service. The action would fast-track VA benefits for Veterans suffering from those diseases. It would mark the first time Veterans with burn pit exposure would be entitled to such treatment from the VA. When creating presumptions, the agency typically has a high bar for scientific evidence to link diseases with military service.

“We don’t have time for that,” Ruiz said of waiting for more medical studies. “There’s enough evidence right now to determine that there’s a high suspicion. We have Veterans who are dying, so we need to act on that suspicion.”

Some Vietnam Veterans are still attempting to secure VA benefits for exposure to Agent Orange. “Blue Water” Navy Veterans, those who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war, have fought for years to prove they were exposed to the dioxin-laden herbicide. The VA has opposed their efforts, citing high costs and insufficient scientific evidence. A federal court ruled in January that Blue Water Veterans are eligible for VA benefits. The government has until later this month to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Ruiz didn’t have a cost estimate for his legislation.

“I think that because we’ve been through this song and dance before with Agent Orange, that’s why we need to introduce legislation right away,” he said.

Besides lung diseases, some Veterans suffering from cancers and autoimmune diseases have said they believe the ailments were caused by their exposure to burn pits. Ruiz said he plans to tackle those issues in the future.

“This isn’t one chemical causing a specific syndrome or illness,” Ruiz said. “These are hundreds of different chemicals that are producing a variety of illnesses.”


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