Topics in This Week's News Include:
1. What's Important to You?Should DoD do more to support families of deployed service members? Ishelping military spouses in their careers a priority? How about makingit easier for you to get an appointment at your local military medicalfacility? Should Congress provide bigger military pay raises or housingallowances? As the year comes to a close, NMFA is preparing its list oflegislative and policy goals for 2007. We know we will be asked byMembers of Congress and others about the critical challenges facingmilitary families, about what's working for them, and about what isimportant to them. Now's your chance to help us tell them what reallyis important to military families. Complete our "What's Important?"survey today! Go to: www.nmfa.org/whatsimportant.
2. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to Step Down December 18:On December 18, 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will leavehis office as the newly-confirmed Secretary of Defense Robert Gatestakes his place. With his departure, the Secretary leaves behind a sixyear tenure that makes him the second longest running Secretary ofDefense in our nation's history. During his surprise visit to troops inIraq, Secretary Rumsfeld stated, "For the past six years, I have hadthe opportunity and, I would say the privilege, to serve with thegreatest military on the face of the Earth. I leave understanding thatthe true strength of the United States military is not in Washington,it's not in the Pentagon, it's not in the weapons. It's in the heartsof the men and women who serve... It has been the honor of my life toserve with you, and I will never forget it; I will treasure it always."(Source: http://www.defenselink.mil/news/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=2365)
3. Congress Passes Critical Veterans Bill:Before its Friday adjournment, the 109th Congress reached agreement oncritical veterans' legislation. The $3.2 billion Veterans Benefits,Health Care and Information Technology Act of 2006 (S. 3421) is ancollection of House and Senate initiatives that had been in limbo formonths while lawmakers tried to reach a compromise. The bill includesan historic provision allowing veterans to hire an agent or attorney torepresent them after a notice of disagreement has been filed. Theattorney representation provision, opposed by some veterans' groups andendorsed by others, allows-but does not require-veterans to berepresented by an attorney or some other agent when filing claims.Under current law, an attorney cannot be paid for representation untila claim has made its way through the entire administrative process, butthe provision's primary sponsor, Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), the SenateVeterans' Affairs Committee chairman, argued claims today are socomplex today that veterans should not be precluded from gettingadditional help.
The bill also includes an NMFA-supported provision to expandeligibility for Dependents Education Assistance to the spouse or childof a service member hospitalized or receiving outpatient care beforethe service member's discharge for a total and permanentservice-connected disability. The provision's intent is to help enhancethe spouse's earning power as early as possible before discharge of theservice member.
The bill also:
- Provides increased support for service members returning from thewar on terror through improved VA outreach and $65 million to increasethe number of clinicians treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)and improve their training. It authorizes the hiring of marriage andfamily therapists to expand counseling resources.
- Expandstele-health initiatives to improve health care to rural veterans, andexpands the number of community-based outpatient clinics able to treatmental illnesses.
- Authorizes spending for collaboration in PTSD diagnosis and treatment between VA and the Department of Defense (DoD).
- Authorizes increased access to bereavement counseling for surviving family members at Vet Centers.
- BoostsVA health care construction by authorizing more than $600 million forrepair or replacement of flood-damaged facilities in New Orleans andelsewhere on the Gulf Coast; $36.8 million for advance planning of acollaboration project between the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center inCharleston, S.C., and the adjacent Medical University of South Carolina(MUSC); $98 million for the replacement of the VA medical center inDenver as well as 22 other major construction projects in 15 states.
- Authorizes$2 million for additional blind rehabilitation specialists andincreases the number of facilities where these specialists will belocated.
- Authorizes VA to designate six Parkinson's DiseaseResearch, Education, and Clinical Centers of Excellence, and at leasttwo Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence, and strengthens VA'shomeless grant and per diem programs.
- Creates a VA office of rural health and improves outreach for rural veterans.
- Providesfor reimbursement by the VA to state veterans homes for the costs ofcare provided to veterans with a 70 percent or higher service-connectedcondition; further, veterans in these homes with service-connectedconditions rated at least 50 percent would get their medications freeof charge.
The May 3, 2006, theft of a VA employee's laptop computer put atrisk the personal data of 25.6 million veterans and 2.2 million activeduty members of the Guard and Reserves. This was the government'slargest information security breach, and the second largest in thenation's history. Reinforcing VA Secretary R. James Nicholson's recentdecision to centralize management of information security, the billdirects the VA to provide breach notification to individuals, reportsto Congress, fraud alerts, data breach analysis, credit monitoringservices and identity theft insurance. It also provides for anInformation Security Education Assistance program, an incentive toallow the VA the ability to recruit personnel with the informationskills necessary to meet department requirements. (Source: http://veterans.house.gov/news/109/12-8-06.html)
4. DFAS Adds Enhancements to myPay Site: Several improvements have been made to the myPay website (https://mypay.dfas.mil/mypay.aspx).A new feature has been added for service members participating in theSavings Deposit Program (SDP). The SDP allows service members servingin designated combat zones an opportunity to deposit a specific amountof money in a high interest rate account. Previously, only depositscould be made through myPay. Now, service members can requestwithdrawals from the account through myPay. DFAS has also added a linkto the withdrawal form from the SDP statement.
Another improvement provides service members access to aprinter-friendly option. While all myPay customers can print their ownLES and W2s from the web whenever and wherever, the printer-friendlyoption allows for higher quality print copies of all documents.
DFAS officials also emphasize they want to keep customers up-to-dateon new information and notifications related to their pay. A new myPayfeature asks customers to enter their current email address so DFAS cansend them pertinent information. Once on file, the system annuallycertifies the address to make sure it is current. Officials also notedthat maintaining the safety and security of myPay is a top priority.DFAS implements new security features on a routine basis to protectcustomers against Identity theft and scams. The secure technologyprovided to myPay customers meets or exceeds security requirements inprivate industry worldwide. (Source: DFAS Press Release, 1206-0001)
5. FDIC Addresses Pay Day Lending Alternatives for Military: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) held a roundtableentitled "Affordable, Responsible Loans for the Military: Programs andPrototypes" on December 6 at FDIC headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.The event was attended by member banks of the Association of MilitaryBanks, community bankers, members of the Defense Credit UnionAssociation, DoD and Service representatives who deal in financial andbanking issues, and FDIC regulators. NMFA Deputy Director of GovernmentRelations Kathy Moakler also attended. The event grew out of achallenge by Sheila C. Bair, Chairman of the FDIC to reach out tocommunity groups to meet the needs of banking consumers. With therecent changes in the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act requiringthat a creditor may not impose an annual percentage rate of interestgreater than 36 percent with respect to the consumer credit extended toa military service member or dependent of a service member, bothgovernment officials and many creditors see the need for providingproducts with affordable, reasonable interest rates with no or low feesas alternatives to loans offered by predatory lenders.
The conference began with opening remarks by Chairman Bair, followedby a keynote from Representative Barney Frank (D-MA,4th), the incomingchair of the House Financial Services Committee in the 110th Congress.He stressed the under-utilization by Americans in the lower incomebands of the banking system on the whole. He thanked the participantsfor setting a model for offering banking products for lower incomeconsumers.
The rest of the day featured panels addressing the various aspectsof providing affordable loans to service members and their families.The first panel, featuring representatives from the Ft. Hood NationalBank, Armed Forces Bank, First National Bank located at Tinker AFB,Bank of America Military Bank and Eisenhower National Bank, spoke toexisting programs that are offered to service members who findthemselves in financial straits. All featured low interest rates onsmall dollar loans, but required service members to commit tocontinuing education on financial consumer issues such as auto loans,budgeting, powers of attorney and coping with unforeseen financialsituations. Each program also featured an asset building and creditbuilding component to help prevent the service member from falling intothe debt trap again. This discussion was a monumental event in thatmost financial institutions do not ordinarily share their practiceswith each other.
The next panel discussed how banks and credit unions outside themilitary arena are developing programs that help their customers climbup from the debt spiral. The final panel of the morning, consisting ofregulators from the FDIC discussed the newly issued draft guidelines onsmall dollar loans that had been issued for comment to coincide withthis conference. In the proposed guidelines, the FDIC encourages banksto offer products with affordable, reasonable interest rates with no orlow fees; payments that pay down the principal balance of the loan; anda saving component incorporated into the loans. The FDIC alsoencourages banks to leverage technology in managing these products. Inaddition to a savings component, programs also should include financialeducation for frequent borrowers. The panelists also discussed how theFDIC would work with responsible lending institutions and DoD in thedevelopment of regulations and guidelines in line with the requirementsof the recent change of the interest rate that can be charged toservice members and their families. For more information on the FDICguidelines on small dollar loans visit the FDIC web site at: http://www.fdic.gov/news/news/press/2006/pr06017.html and http://www.fdic.gov/news/news/press/2006/pr06017a.html.
At lunch, the group was addressed by Kelvin Boston, the host of thePBS series Moneywise and the moving force behind Moneywise in theMilitary seminars, which are being presented at several militaryinstallations in 2006 and 2007. The panels continued with an overviewof high-cost credit and its impact on military personnel. Members ofthis panel included Marcus Beauregard, DoD State Liaison office;Barbara Thompson, Director of the DoD Office of Family Policy andChildren and Youth and RADM Jan Cody Gaudio, USN (Ret), Executive VicePresident and COO, Navy Marine Corps Relief Society. They commented onthe DoD Report "Predatory Lending Practices aimed at Military Members"and the effect not only on the financial well being of service membersbut on readiness as well, especially in the area of securityclearances. While applauding the efforts of the previous panels, theydid point out that one of the reasons that service members do availthemselves of the services of predatory lenders is that they canreceive the money they need quickly. This speed has not always beenreadily available when dealing with conventional lending institutions.They also reported that with continuing education to service membersabout the pitfalls of predatory lenders, the use of these institutionsin on the decrease. DoD and the Services have partnered with 26financial organizations and non profits, including the military banks,defense credit unions, and NMFA to increase the counseling andinformation available to service members and their families.
After listening to all the panels, the bankers broke up into smallgroups to collaborate on developing a template for an affordablealternative small loan product. Information on the panels and theoutcome can be found at: http://www.fdic.gov/news/conferences/index.html.NMFA applauds the efforts of all these agencies coming together toprovide alternatives for service members and their families when theyconfront financial difficulties, and for providing them with tools toavoid those difficulties altogether. NMFA will continue to monitor theprogress of these initiatives and promote financial education for allmilitary families. Visit www.nmfa.org and click on the "Money and You" section for tools to help military families become more financially savvy.
6. DoD Updates Survivor Guide: TheDoD publication "A Survivor's Guide to Benefits Taking Care of Our Own"has recently been updated. This update features an enlarged list ofadditional resources, the newest information concerning health benefitsfor surviving children and the inclusion of the Coast Guard emblem toreflect all the military services. DoD is fulfilling its promise to usethe guide as an up-to-the minute presentation of the benefits that areavailable to the survivors of those who have made the greatestsacrifice. The guide may be accessed through http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/ under the Families section.
7. Sesame Workshop Special Talks About When Parents are Deployed:Sesame Workshop expands its Military Families Initiative with aprimetime special, When Parents are Deployed, premiering December 27 at9:00 pm ET/PT on PBS. The half hour special will be hosted by AcademyAward winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. With more than 700,000 childrenof military families under the age of five separated from their motheror father this holiday season Sesame Workshop, the nonprofiteducational organization behind Sesame Street, has responded with aprogram geared to address the challenges military families face withdeployment. Sesame Workshop recently launched a partnership withWal-Mart Stores, Inc, with additional support from The New York StateOffice of Mental Health (NYSOMH), DoD, and other organizations tocreate an educational outreach program titled, Talk, Listen, Connect:Helping Families During Military Deployment. The program was created toassist the children of the military cope with the enormous separationanxiety they face when a parent is called to duty. Program kits areavailable at http://www.militaryonesource.com/ or www.sesameworkshop.org/tlc .WhenParents Are Deployed reveals candid and intimate moments with theparents, caregivers, and children impacted by deployment. They expresshow they are coping with the daily stress and fears associated withhaving a parent depart for military duty, and how families deal withthat member when they return home after serving their country. As theholidays can be a very difficult time for military families, SesameWorkshop saw this special as way to illustrate how this group ofAmericans is managing during times of extended separation. WhenParents Are Deployed was made possible by the Corporation for PublicBroadcasting and portions of the special were contributed by Wal-Martas part of their support of Talk, Listen, Connect. NMFA applauds SesameWorkshop and their partners for the meaningful difference they aremaking in the lives of military children and their families.
8. Gift Giving For Overseas Troops:During the holiday season our deployed service members are never farfrom our thoughts. If you would like to share a holiday greeting orsend a goodie package to a loved one or "any soldier" overseas, hereare a few of the many places that could help:
- Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES): Friends and family ofmilitary overseas can sent a gift certificate from the one-shop shopsfor military personnel worldwide that stock all sort of goods, fromlicorice sticks to digital cameras to "bug-out" bags. A "bug out" bagis a backpack that service members pack in anticipation of having tochange locations at a moment's notice. Service members can buy anythingthey want with the gift certificate, but CDs and DVDs have been themost popular, say AAFES officials. Sold in denominations of $10 and$20, gift certificates can be redeemed at any AAFES PX (PostageExchange) or BX (Base Exchange) throughout the world. AAFES currentlyoperates 51 stores in the "SW Asian theater" or the countries involvedin Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom (OEF/OIF), including 29 inIraq, 10 in Kuwait, five in Afghanistan, four in Qatar/UAE/Djibouti,one in Pakistan, one in Kyrgyzstan and one in Uzbekistan. http://www.aafes.com/index.html
- UnitedService Organizations (USO) Every donation of $25 covers the cost ofdelivering a package to members of the U.S. Armed Forces deployedaround the world. Each package contains a pre-paid worldwide phonecard, sunscreen, travel size toiletries, a disposable camera and more. http://www.usocares.org/src/uso_home.htm
- GiftsFrom the Homefront: Anyone can send a gift certificate to a servicemember or an organization assisting families by making a donation toone of the organizations listed at the AAFES website: http://www.aafes.com/.Among the organizations currently on the list are the American RedCross national headquarters, the Air Force Aid Society, The FisherHouse and the USO. You can make a donation for a Gift of Groceriesthrough some of the same organizations by going to: http://www.commissaries.com/certificheck/index.cfm.
- AmericaSupports You: America Supports You," a nationwide program launched bythe Department of Defense, recognizes citizens' support for militarymen and women and communicates that support to members of the ArmedForces at home and abroad. All events and information is highlighted onthe America Supports You website (http://www.americasupportsyou.mil/),which allows participants to register and be recognized, share theirstories of support with the nation and the troops, and download programmaterials for distribution and dissemination. Americans can findsupport efforts in their state in which they might participate byclicking on the U.S. map on the site. Military members can also accessthe web and learn about America's support for their service.
9. Walter Reed Stops Accepting "Any Wounded Soldier" Gifts:Officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have stopped acceptinganonymous holiday gifts and cards for wounded patients there, citingadministrative costs and security concerns. All packages and cardsdelivered to "any wounded soldier" at the medical campus will bereturned to their senders with a note explaining the program change andsuggesting other charities. The change was enacted in the past week.Packages sent to specific patients won't be affected. Officials haveexpressed appreciation for the donations, but state staff simply cannothandle the distribution and monitoring of the packages. Last December,the hospital received more than 500,000 holiday packages and cards.Officials believe donors will understand the security and logisticalreasons behind the decision, and hope it will not affect theirgenerosity. Program administrators are speaking with local charitiesabout receiving some holiday donations for the wounded patients, but nodecisions have been made.
The center's medical family assistance center will still distributesome donations both with patients in Washington and at LandstuhlRegional Medical Center in Germany. Meanwhile, officials have offered alist of websites of other charities where donors can send their gifts
- America Supports You charities: http://www.americasupportsyou.mil/
- The USO: www.usocares.org/src/uso_donate.htm
- To Our Soldiers: www4.army.mil/ocpa/tooursoldiers
- The Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/
Walter Reed has treated more than 5,400 patients from Iraq andAfghanistan over the last five years, approximately 1,700 of whom havebeen battle casualties. (Source: http://www.estripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=42082)
10. VA Announces Insurance Dividends:More than one million veterans are in line to share $369 million inannual insurance dividends during 2007, according to the Department ofVeterans Affairs (VA). VA operates one of the nation's largest lifeinsurance programs, providing more than $1 trillion in coverage to 4.5million service members, veterans, spouses and children. The dividendpayments will be sent to an estimated 1.2 million holders of VAinsurance policies on the anniversary date of their policies. Sentautomatically through different payment plans, the amounts will varybased on the age of the veteran, the type of insurance, and the lengthof time the policy has been in force.
The dividends come from the earnings of a trust fund into whichveterans have paid insurance premiums over the years, and are linked toreturns on investments in U.S. government securities. Dividends arepaid each year to veterans holding certain government life insurancepolicies and who served between 1917 and 1956. World War II veteransholding National Service Life Insurance ("V") policies comprise thelargest group receiving 2007 insurance dividend payments. They areexpected to receive total payments of $286.3 million. An additionalgroup of World War II era veterans, those who have Veterans ReopenedInsurance ("J", "JR" and "JS") policies, will in total receivedividends of $10.1 million. Korean War era veterans who have maintainedVeterans Special Life Insurance ("RS" and "W") policies can expect toreceive dividends totaling $71.6 million. Dividends totaling $1 millionwill be paid to veterans who served between World War I and 1940 andwho hold U.S. Government Life Insurance ("K") policies.
VA officials caution veterans about a long-running scam in whichvarious groups charge fees to "locate" veterans who are eligible forthe dividends. Veterans eligible for the dividends have had VA lifeinsurance policies in effect since they left the military and havereceived annual notifications from VA about the policies.
Veterans who have questions about their policies may contact the VAinsurance toll-free number at 1-800-669-8477 or send an e-mail to VAinsurance@va.gov. They may also visit the Internet at http://www.insurance.va.gov/.