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New Laws for Veterans in 2021-2022 (NDAA)

Video Transcription:

Maura Black: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today for our CCK live discussion. My name is Maura Black. I am joined today by Alyse Phillips and Michael Lostritto. We are at Chisholm Chisholm and Kilpatrick, and today we are talking about new laws for veterans in 2021. So the discussion today stems from the new law that passed through Congress recently, the National Defense Authorization Act, and this new law go through Congress each year, but each year the changes in it are different. And so we wanted to update everyone on some changes that they can potentially be on the lookout for to see if they affect your benefits. Things that you might qualify for whether you are a veteran or a current service member. Because again, as I said, the changes are different each year. So we wanted to go through some of the highlights from this year

Maura: The general categories of changes that we are going to talk about today because there are so many of them. We would not be able to get through all of them and in one discussion or maybe even a couple. So we are just going to highlight some of the things that we found particularly interesting in the areas of the new presumptive conditions, which have been added through the act. Some additional exposure research. Some health care and VBA, or veterans benefits changes and then some additional changes that are in place that will affect current service members. So, Mike, I wanted to start with you for the new exposure-related changes, both the new presumptive conditions that have been added to VA’s radar and also to some new toxic exposure research that has been contemplated by the new law.

Michael Lostritto:
Well, there was a measure that was included in the final version of the defense bill that actually granted the Department of Veterans Affairs or granted benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs to really tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans, and these are veterans specifically who are believed to have been suffering from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. So specifically in the bill or in the legislation, there includes a measure that would approve or provide benefits for Vietnam Veterans who are suffering from three specific new conditions thought to be caused by exposure to the chemical herbicide agent in Agent Orange. And so to outline these three conditions, the first is bladder cancer. The second is hypothyroidism, and this is really a condition where the thyroid gland does not produce enough of the, you know, critical crucial hormone that is involved in that process. And the third and final condition that was included as a new presumptive condition in this piece of legislation was Parkinson-like symptoms. And so this involves symptoms like having tremors, or maybe slow movement, impaired speech, muscle stiffness.

Michael: And so all of those sorts of symptoms that are Parkinson’s-like symptoms now can be under this piece of legislation presumed to have been caused by a veteran’s exposure to Agent Orange. So as a result of this and this is you know, a really important change that was brought about by the passage of this bill. Veterans really do not need as much proof any longer to connect the dots in their case, if they have one of these conditions and they can show that they were exposed to Agent Orange. So essentially, that, you know, we often talk about having a Nexus or requiring a Nexus to get service connection for conditions. And so what this does is for these three new conditions, VA will presume that if a veteran has been exposed to Agent Orange that these conditions were the result of that exposure. And so this really has a wide — Really expansive reach in terms of how many veterans it potential gets. There are some estimates that it is over, you know, approximately thirty-four thousand Vietnam War Veterans can be affected, or will be affected by the passage of this legislation who may be suffering from one of these three conditions.

Michael: And now, might be eligible to service connection for these benefits. So those are the three conditions. In addition to that, this piece of legislation included a measure to grant certain veterans access to the VA Burn Pit Registry, to help track exposure. And this is common in the specific base that we are talking about here is really an old Soviet Era airbase and Uzbekistan and it is known as, you know, the K2 base or these are classified as K2 veterans you might hear that term tossed about it bit. But what the legislation does is it will impact approximately fifteen thousand, or more veterans who served at this base, and who may have exposed to dangerous levels of radiation or really other hazards. And so the bill included a requirement for more research to go into whether these veterans, these K2 Veterans did in fact suffer such exposure. And so, the bill really is pretty critical or the legislation that was passed is really pretty critical to adding those three conditions and looking more closely at potential exposure at this pace.

Maura: And I know we have been tracking those new additions to the presumptive list for a long time. I am pretty sure we did a video similar to this, one last year, on the lookout for new developments in the law, and those three conditions were talked about even a year ago, and they have been kind of on the radar for a really long time. So, thank you for that update, Mike. People who have been following me, updates to the presumptive list might notice that hypertension is not yet part of the list of added conditions which continues to be something that VA is supposed to be working on so, of course, if we have any developments about that, in particular, will be sure to release those as we have them.

Maura: Alyse, I wanted to come to you now to talk about some health care updates that are contemplated in the NDAA. And before you start listing out the things that you have on your list, just a note that we are going to try to link a full copy of the NDAA, and the comments associated with this video so that people can look through — They can look up some of the changes that we are talking about today to get more details and then they can also see the other changes, since the act is a pretty expansive one. So, that being said, Alyse, can you talk to us about some health care updates?

Alyse Phillips: So the first that we are going to talk about is called the Deborah Sampson Act. It is within that long list of updates that you just mentioned, specifically, this targets improvements for women veterans. You know, women veterans being one of the largest and fastest-growing groups with of veterans currently. So it is a sweeping health care bill aimed to improve services and removes some of the barriers that female veterans are currently facing. I am not going to list everything here just because as you mentioned there is a lot. So again, if you want to read the full list, we are going to link the full act to this video. But some things that we do want to talk about are first, it does mention gender-specific health care. So that means the VA medical centers will be covering things such as mammograms, and other, you know, specific women’s health care issues.

Alyse: It also includes sexual harassment policies which include training for VA employees, and it ensures that women’s primary care is available during all regular VA business hours. It also establishes a separate office just designated for women’s health. That was not a thing that previously VA medical centers were seeing and it provides more funding for women’s veteran’s programs, in general, that can also include things such as military sexual trauma counseling, extended health care for newborns, many more things. Things that we really just were not seeing in you know, available to women’s veterans before are now going to be made available during this new amendment to that.

Maura: And I know that there might be some updates to caregiver policies?

Alyse: Yeah. So with caregiver policies, really, it is just going to require VA to formally recognize caregivers of veterans in those health care and those health records, previously, that was not a requirement.

Maura: There are other miscellaneous changes and when I say miscellaneous, it is not because they are not important but it is because there are many of them that have at least been mentioned before. So there are a few changes that are affecting the benefit side of things that are a product of the NDAA for this year. One of those things is that the DIC remarriage age has been reduced from fifty-seven to fifty-five. So for those not familiar, DIC is a benefit that is available for surviving spouses of veterans who passed away due to their service-connected conditions or due to an event in service, and the current requirement or it was current until this year. And until this legislation passed was that GIC benefits could not be continued to be offered to the recipient, if there was a remarriage, if the recipient of those benefits remarried before the age of fifty-seven, that age has been reduced to fifty-five. So the remarriage requirement is adjusted just a little bit to only come into play until the surviving spouse reaches the age of fifty-five.

Maura: And an additional thing that we have mentioned in other videos because it has been an ongoing issue this year, at least in our practice, and I think it is affected a lot of other practitioners, as well, is the removal of the copies of DBQs or disability benefits questionnaires from VA’s public-facing website. So we have previously mentioned that VA removed the copies of the DBQ forms from their website which deprives people of the ability to use those forms and to have their private doctors or clinicians outside of VA fill out those forms. And this was a problem because as we know, VA is very dependent on the forms that their agency produces and so information that comes to them through their own standardized forms is usually treated differently, frankly than evidence that comes through other means. So DBQs are a nice way for a private doctor to be able to list information about a veteran’s condition, their medical disabilities, their service relationship, their severity, all of which can be important information and disability claims.

Maura: The NDAA has required VA to put those forms back on their website. So I believe we learned a little while ago what they had planned to do so. This act makes it official what they have to do so if they have not, and it would hopefully make it so that the removal of these DBQs from VA’s website would not be happening anymore. Regardless, we do have copies of all of the DBQ forms linked through our website, cck-law.com. So definitely, feel free to take a look there if you are unable to access these forms, but they should be back on VA’s website as a result of the NDAA. Mike, there are additional things about overpayment that I think is coming out of this act. I am not exactly sure what the new rules are or how much it changes the process. But can you talk to us about relevant changes in the overpayment run?

Michael: One of the issues that have really been fairly prevalent through the early days of the COVID-nineteen pandemic and still through to, you know, the present has been the issue of veterans receiving notices from the Debt Management Center trying to collect overpayment debts that may have been issued. So one thing that we see in our practice and many veterans may be familiar with is that if for whatever reason VA determines that they overpaid a veteran VA disability compensation benefits, oftentimes, though not always, but oftentimes, VA will try to collect that debt or that overpayment back from them. And so this has — As I mentioned this has really become an important issue as we have gone through the past year. So, as you know, veterans may not be able to repay a lot of these debts like they may have been in the past. And so, although there has been some — I think, some executive action to stall the collection of those payments.

Michael: What this legislation did was through the Veterans Debt Fairness Act, it really implemented new restrictions and new limitations on the VA’s authority to collect overpayments of benefits from veterans. So hopefully this provides some extended relief for veterans and, you know, least speaking for my own practice, I certainly have seen a decrease in the notices that typically are sent out to veterans to collect overpayment debts. And so this is definitely welcomed relief, I am sure, to many veterans who oftentimes through no fault of their own are presented with a situation where they receive more benefits than they may have been entitled to, but were not aware of it or again, it was through nothing they did on their end. So hopefully, this legislation can help provide some relief on that front.

Maura: I totally agree, Mike. I have also seen a reduction in the number of overpayment notices that are coming through which is great. And I agree, this is definitely a welcome change. Alyse, I wanted to come back to you for some additional healthcare-related topics, but I believe that this pertains more to benefits because VA has through the NDAA expanded the amount of healthcare type research that they are going to be conducting. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Alyse: Basically, they are expanding funding for certain research that is specific for specific areas, or specific conditions, rather. So unlike what Mike was talking about, before where we are really seeing an addition to the presumption here. This is just for research. We are not really sure what is going to come out of it yet, but it is certainly a good thing because there is a — With these four areas, there is a lot of uncertainty, especially with you know, service connection and raiding their more complicated area. So the first is going to be for ALS, then for eating disorder treatment, for TBI or traumatic brain injuries, which is a big one that we see in our practice, and then also for Musculoskeletal conditions, another big one that we see here at CCK. So, expand my research that and we will see what comes out of it.

Maura: And that actually reminds me that another change that we may have mentioned in a previous video, or will in the future is that in addition to the NDAA, there have been some changes to the Musculoskeletal rating criteria. So that is another thing to be mindful of — You may see some differences in the way that VA is classifying certain Musculoskeletal conditions diagnostic codes or the criteria for those. So just while we are on the topic of some changes in the law, that is probably worth mentioning. Other changes were I am going to briefly mention affect current service members. And Mike, I am going to ask you to help me out with some changes about the military pay raise, which I think is probably the most significant of these and the most far-reaching. But other issues that are worth mentioning are first, that the criteria for Home Loan Eligibility for National Guard members have been relaxed a little bit.

Maura: So previously, to be eligible for a home loan, a national guard or reservist would have to be serving for ninety consecutive days on active duty and I believe the requirement has been relaxed to only thirty days consecutive with ninety days total of duty service. So that is worth noting, and another area where we have noticed some changes and again, you will want to look through the actual text of the NDAA to get more specifics is with the G.I. Bill. There have been some additional edits made to the criteria for the G.I. Bill eligibility. So if that affects you, you definitely want to take a look at the changes. Mike, as I said, there has been an adjustment in the military pay rate. So can you tell us about that?

Michael: So as part of this Act Congress did approve a three percent military pay raise for current service members and that is effective or was effective January 1st, 2021. So what this does is it essentially matches or nearly matches the raise that was included for the fiscal year 2020. I believe there was an approximately three-point one percent increase in pay and at the time that was the largest and it still is the largest pay increase for service members over the past ten years. So again, you know as of January 1st of this year, the three percent increase in pay for military current service members

Michael: And that includes actually an approval in the legend this piece of legislation that raises the Hazardous Duty Incentive Pay. Previously, that pay is paid monthly for service members who have a duty in a foreign area that is designated as an imminent danger area or kind of a high-risk area. Previously, that pay was at a two hundred and fifty dollars per month rate as a result of this act, which is being increased to two two-hundred seventy-five dollars per month. So we have got a slight bump there and a three percent increase in military pay as of the first of this year.

Maura: I think that concludes most of the changes that we wanted to mention in our list. Again, this is not an exhaustive list of the changes that have been brought about by the passage of the NDAA this year. Alyse, did you want to conclude with any final thoughts, any words of advice for people who might be interested in learning more about all these changes?

Alyse: Yeah, sure. So, of course, if you want to learn more, we are going to link that full NDAA text below. But I think one thing that is really timely that I should mention is that they have also included some things COVID-nineteen-related. So, specifically, veterans homes, for example, are going to be required — State-run veterans homes are going to be required to indicate and report any COVID cases or COVID-related deaths, and that is going to be right in the text of the double I saw.

Maura: As a least mentioned, we will definitely be sure to link any resources that we think might be helpful to you along these lines. Please do not hesitate to visit our blog, our website at cck-law.com. We have other articles that might be timely or relevant to what we discussed today. Other videos, of course of other relevant areas that we have talked about in the past. So definitely take advantage of what we have got there. And, thank you, Alyse and Mike, for joining me today, and thank you to everyone out there. We hope you are all doing well, and we hope to see you again soon.