April 14 Veterans News

April 14 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateIAVA to Congress: Don’t cut the Post-9/11 GI Bill (MilitaryTimes)
Leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America say they don’t believe Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits should be cut this year — or next year, or ever. So the advocates are working to pin down lawmakers to that lifetime promise as congressional leaders eye a slate of GI Bill rollbacks that could affect military families as soon as next year. The first problematic reductions focus on a bill that passed the House of Representatives in February and provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last December. IAVA will hold a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday imploring lawmakers to “stand with veterans” and “oppose all attempts to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill as a piggy bank to fund other government programs.” The organization’s new campaign — dubbed “Defend the GI Bill” by group leaders — echoes long-held fears by many in the veterans community that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan slowly fade into history, lawmakers will be tempted to revisit military and veterans benefits as a cost-cutting maneuver. “The principle is that the GI Bill is something that we fought long and hard for,” said Jonathan Schleifer, IAVA’s interim chief policy officer. “It’s not a piggy bank for every new idea that comes along.” While many veterans service organizations have quietly expressed concerns about such moves, few are joining the IAVA campaign, instead opting to wait to see just where lawmakers go with the latest set of proposals. The impetus for the fight stems from legislation passed by the House in early February that would cut in half the housing allowance for children of service members attending college using transferred Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. … The Department of Veterans Affairs will spend about $12 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits this fiscal year alone, making the program an attractive target for fiscal conservatives on Capitol Hill. … Another pending change that could have long-range effects on military families: new transfer rules for military dependents and spouses who want to use the GI Bill funds. … Congress also wants to curb costs for veterans using GI Bill education dollars for flight school, capping tuition spending at those institutions at $19,400, the same as how other non-public universities are treated. The change would affect only a few hundred students but would cut their benefits significantly. … Last year, Congress passed new rules cutting off unemployment checks for veterans attending college on GI Bill benefits, a move that’s expected to save hundreds of millions in federal spending over the next decade but could trim up to $4,000 in monthly financial support for veterans in some cities. … Combined, the benefit cutbacks are a far cry from the open-checkbook attitude of Congress back in 2009, when the Post-9/11 GI Bill was approved. … Despite that attitude shift, not everyone is worried about lawmakers rapidly abandoning the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Derek Fronabarger, policy director at Student Veterans of America, said he still sees overwhelming support on Capitol Hill for preserving veterans’ education benefits, even with the latest proposal looming. But IAVA officials want a stronger promise.

Appeals court finds VA wronged vets by ignoring 2010 law (Stars and Stripes)
A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has ruled unanimously that the Department of Veterans Affairs ignored “plain language” of a 2010 statute meant to protect VA-enrolled veterans from out-of-pocket costs when forced to use non-VA emergency medical care. The panel ordered the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to vacate its decision to deny Air Force veteran Richard W. Staab roughly $48,000 in health care costs he was forced to pay following open-heart surgery in December 2010. The board “failed to properly apply the statute and relied on an invalid regulation” to deny Staab’s claim, the court ruled. The decision benefits only Staab, for now. But hundreds of other VA-enrolled veterans who had alternative health insurance, and so got stuck paying some of their outside emergency care costs since Feb. 1, 2010, when the ignored law took effect, have new legal ground on which to re-file claims for VA reimbursement, said Bart Stichman, one of Staab’s attorneys. These vets should cite the appeals court’s April 8 Staab v. McDonald decision to argue “clear and unmistakable error” in deciding previous claims, said Stichman, forcing VA claim adjudicators to determine if there was error. Stichman also is joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit veterans service organization that brought Staab’s case to the appeals court as it often does on critical benefit issues. The court, in effect, agreed Staab had been victimized by VA’s convoluted interpretation of a law regarding its obligation to cover non-VA emergency care costs when veterans have other health insurance, including Medicare. VA long has maintained it is obligated to pay emergency costs only for veterans who have no alternative health coverage. The consequence of that logic is that VA-enrolled veterans are better off having no other insurance when a health emergency arises than in having some coverage. For those without insurance, VA agrees it must cover all costs. For those with insurance, VA will cover no costs, forcing veterans to pay whatever expenses Medicare or their health insurance plans will not pay. Recognizing how unfair that is, Congress voted in 2009 to clarify the law, specifically to “allow the VA to reimburse veterans for treatment in a non-VA facility if they have a third-party insurance that would pay a portion of the emergency care.” … The clarifying statute took effect in February 2010. Yet while rewriting regulations to implement the law, VA officials opted for language that would preserve their former interpretation. Reimbursements for emergency care would be allowed under the revised rule only if the “veteran has no coverage under a health-plan contract” for payment of such care. In a notice of final rulemaking published April 20, 2012, VA reinforced the point, stating that any entitlement to care or services under an outside health plan, “even a partial one, bars eligibility” for VA reimbursement. That was wrong, the appeals court found. The “plain language” of the revised statute, it wrote, shows Congress “intended VA to reimburse a veteran for that portion of expenses not covered by a health plan contract.” VA can appeal, Stichman said, but he suggested that would be an embarrassment for the department.

Commentary: Give vets greater access to quality care, not health care credit cards (Task & Purpose)
Garry J. Augustine, Executive Director, DAV: When faced with something as complex as ensuring veterans have timely access to the health care they need, it’s always dangerous to gravitate toward simple-sounding solutions. That’s certainly the case this election year, as “let the money follow the veteran, instead of funding VA,” has become a popular soundbite on the campaign trail and even on Capitol Hill. Yes, we need to reform veterans health care, but taking money out of the Department of Veterans Affairs and sending it into the private sector is not the cure. Giving veterans vouchers or plastic cards that they can use to pay for health care wherever they choose may at first glance seem like an attractive idea. Unfortunately, this simplistic idea assumes that veterans will be able to readily access quality care in the private sector whenever and wherever they want. But looking at the widespread problems that continue to plague the current “choice” program — such as scheduling mistakes, veterans getting billed and providers not getting paid — tells a very different story. The reality is that today’s private-sector providers are not prepared to accept large numbers of new patients without incurring lengthy appointment wait times. They are certainly not ready to take on the care of millions of veterans, particularly those who are severely injured and ill. Nor do most medical personnel working in the private sector have the expertise or experience treating veterans as do the full-time health care professionals working inside VA. Veterans who are enrolled in the VA health care system present more chronic health conditions than the general population. They need access to primary care physicians that are both knowledgeable about the unique issues facing veterans — men and women who have, for example, been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam or burn pits in Iraq — and have the time to dedicate to their care. That’s simply not the case in the private sector where scheduling patients every 15 minutes is the norm, and doctors and patients alike complain about the rush of care. At the VA, on the other hand, patient load is managed in such a way that clinicians are able to spend more time actually listening to and caring for veterans. Research has shown that patients at VA facilities are much more likely to be screened for many serious chronic conditions and illnesses, including diabetes and high blood pressure, or to receive preventative medicine, such as flu shots, than in the private sector. Furthermore, giving veterans vouchers or plastic cards to purchase their care in the community will lead to poorer, not better, health outcomes because care will become more fragmented and less coordinated. More veterans, especially those with coexisting chronic health conditions, will be subjected to overtreatment or undertreatment, as no one entity will be held accountable for ensuring the continuity of care veterans receive from various facilities and clinics is appropriate and properly integrated. And then there’s the cost — something not typically mentioned when activists or politicians trumpet “choice” as the solution — which could be as high as $50 billion in new federal spending according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. Does anyone truly believe that Congress will give veterans a brand new $50 billion health care entitlement without cutting a comparable sum from the current VA health care system? Instead of taking the seemingly easy route by offering veterans vouchers or plastic cards, let’s do what is really needed to ensure that all veterans who require treatment can access the care they need. After all, look beyond the headlines and you will find that access is the real problem, not quality — the overall VA health care system has been independently assessed numerous times as equal to or better than the private sector on most health care measures. Veterans deserve more than the hollow “choice” vouchers and plastic cards would offer. Rather, they should be empowered to seek the right course of treatment, free from bureaucratic middlemen. Congress should eliminate arbitrary access standards like the current 30-day wait time and 40-mile distance from a VA facility, and instead allow veterans and their doctors to make the appropriate health care decisions based on clinical factors. To increase access, the VA needs to establish coordinated veterans health care networks that seamlessly integrate community care into an improved VA system. This will create local networks offering new options to ensure veterans get quality health care, when and where they need it. That would be real reform — when veterans and their doctors can choose the best care available in their community, either at VA or, if needed, at a community provider.

Senator pushes to fund fertility services at VA (MilitaryTimes)
An amendment added to the Veterans Affairs appropriations bill Thursday would allocate $88 million to VA to cover fertility treatments and counseling for veterans who can’t have children as a result of wartime injuries. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who has introduced similar legislative language four times since 2012, said the amendment was needed to ensure that VA isn’t “denying veterans their dream of starting a family.” “Here’s the reality, thousands of men and women in uniform — many in their early 20s — have suffered injuries on the battlefield that left them unable to have children naturally,” Murray said during a Senate markup of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. “They have testified here in the Senate about the sacrifices they made, and the extreme cost barriers they face to do the one thing they want most — start a family,” she said. The amendment would provide $18 million in fiscal 2017 for fertility treatments provided by VA and $70 million in fiscal 2018. “The fact is assisted reproductive technology like in vitro fertilization is medically sound and widely used. … The Defense Department has been providing this care to service members for some time now,” Murray said. Nearly 1,400 troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars experienced injuries to their pelvises, groins or spinal cords that make it difficult or nearly impossible to have children without medical assistance. Others have been injured in accidents that have rendered them infertile as a result of paralysis or traumatic brain injury. The Defense Department covers the cost of in vitro fertilization and other fertility services for some wounded troops on active duty and also covers the cost of medications, such as erectile dysfunction medicines, for troops with head injuries that affect fertility. VA provides fertility assessments, counseling and some treatment, such as surgeries, medications and intrauterine insemination, but does not cover in vitro fertilization or fertility services for the spouses of the injured. On Monday, House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced legislation that would compensate veterans for the “loss or loss of use of creative organs,” to help veterans who can’t have children as a result of a service-connected condition. Miller’s bill would pay veterans $20,000 in special compensation payments — over and above the disability compensation the veteran receives — to be used “at the veteran’s discretion.” But the VA appropriations bill, including Murray’s amendment, which passed the committee in a 23-7 vote, would require VA to cover or provide the services. According to Murray, a stand-alone bill she introduced in 2015 to provide these services — legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., — had strong support from a number of veterans groups, including Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Wounded Warrior Project, AMVETS and the Service Women’s Action Network. Organizations like RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine support it as well, she said. In 2012, Murray’s VA fertility bill was unanimously approved by the Senate but the House failed to bring it up for a vote.

US could eliminate veteran homelessness with ‘functional zero’ cities (Mint Press News)
Cities across America are finding some success in their efforts to eradicate homelessness among veterans. A January 2014 report from the Housing and Urban Development Department, citing the annual Point-in-Time Count of homeless individuals in the U.S., suggested 49,933 veterans are homeless in America each day. The total represents a 33 percent drop from 2010, and efforts to house more veterans have continued grow over the past two years. More than a dozen cities, among them Las Cruces, New Mexico, and New Orleans, have reached what’s called “functional zero,” meaning that homelessness is extremely low among veterans, with any exceptions being only temporary situations in which vets can be quickly helped into homes by local aid organizations. Other cities are trying to follow their example. In December, city officials in Austin, Texas, announced that they’d reduced the city’s population of homeless veterans to just 100, down from 250 at the start of 2015. Mayor Steve Adler’s office told KXAN, a local NBC affiliate, that their goal is to house the remaining vets by the end of this year. … Some cities are experimenting with creating dedicated spaces to house vets. “The Six,” a housing complex for homeless and disabled veterans, opened last week in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Created by Skid Row Housing Trust, the energy-efficient building offers services and technology tailored to its residents’ health and wellness needs. “The light that comes into the interior building works to mitigate the effects of PTSD, which most homeless people experience at some point,” Mike Alvidrez, the nonprofit’s CEO, told CBS Los Angeles. … Meanwhile, another growing effort involves creating “Veterans Villages,” clusters of tiny homes that are offered to veterans. Veterans Village Las Vegas has created a community of converted shipping containers in the parking lot of a former motel which also houses the recently homeless. … A pilot program also recently launched in Racine, Wisconsin, to create 15 tiny homes, according to The Journal Times. But even as efforts to aid homeless veterans grow, those without homes continue to suffer. The Los Angeles Times reported in February that the city is confiscating and destroying some tiny homes donated to the homeless, and the city council passed an ordinance in March limiting homeless people’s possessions to “what can fit in a trash bin.”

VA pushes back against ‘Fair Treatment for Families of Veterans Act’ (KUTV)
Utah Rep. Mia Love, speaking Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, introduced the Fair Treatment for Families of Veterans Act. It’s a bill that would extend certain benefits to veterans and their families and it was inspired by an investigation Get Gephardt reported last November, Love said. That report highlighted the plight of Sandy Webb and her family who were battling with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over monetary benefits that had been paid out to Webb’s late mother. Webb says her mom held down the fort at home while her dad fought in the Korean War. Her father’s service had qualified Webb’s mom for $1,149 in monthly benefits. It’s money that Webb says went directly to her mother’s care. After her mom died, the V.A. ordered Webb send back the payment for December of 2014. Webb resisted, arguing that her mom hadn’t died until December 29 so she reasoned at least 29 days’ worth of benefits had been earned. The V.A. told her that is not how it works. By law, benefits end the month before someone dies. Love says she and many of her colleagues in Congress from both sides of the isle think that law needs to change. “I know of several families of deceased benefit recipients that are required to pay back benefits that were already used,” Love said before the subcommittee. Under Love’s bill, what happened to Webb would never happen to another military family. Specifically, it would change the language of the law that governs V.A. benefits. Currently, the law reads that benefits stop the “last day of the month before,” someone dies. It would be changed to read, benefits stop “the last day of the month during which” someone dies. “In other words, these beneficiaries would be entitled to monthly benefits until they die instead of until the month before their death,” Love told the subcommittee. The V.A. showed up at the hearing to argue against the bill. Deputy Under Secretary for Disability Assistance David McLenachen told the subcommittee that the bill will cost taxpayers a lot of money and would also create a lot of work for the agency. “This amendment is ambiguous, would significantly increase V.A.’s accrued benefits caseload and increase mandatory benefit expenditures resulting from an additional month of entitlement after a beneficiary’s death,” he said. Love’s office says they are not deterred by the lack of support from the V.A. Love’s spokesperson Richard Piatt said they have vast bipartisan support from lawmakers. The Veterans of Foreign Wars also rebuffed the V.A.’s concerns and spoke up in support of the bill at the hearing. … There was no vote in Wednesday’s hearing which also heard a number of other veterans’ issues. No vote has yet been scheduled.

Veterans’ service dogs are a breed apart (USA Today)
It takes a special puppy to be a service dog. Only one puppy from each litter is qualified to be a service dog for a veteran, and sometimes, none of them have the temperament, according to Suzanne Ager, a puppy raiser. Between 11% and 20% of veterans returning from Iran or Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. In the U.S., 22 veterans commit suicide each day. The service dogs for veterans provide assistance to those who have physical or emotional disabilities. The dogs learn nightmare and anxiety interruption when they are in school, according to Michele Khol, a trainer for the Assistant Dogs in Training Program, at Veterans Moving Forward. “After a couple of days, you see such a difference in how the puppy is changing the veteran’s life,” Ager said. To perform nightmare interruption, each puppy learns their veteran’s anxiety signature. Eagle, a one-year-old puppy, is currently training to become a service dog with four other puppies at the facility. He has to learn how to open a drawer, pick up objects and stay focused when there is food in right in front of him. Each puppy has a different personality, so trainers have to make sure the puppy is a good match for each veteran, according to Khol. The puppies at a training facility, like Veterans Moving Forward, come from breeders. The breeder selects and donates a qualified puppy from the litter. When the puppies are eight months old, the training begins. There are about ten facilities around the Washington D.C. area which provide service dogs for veterans. During the training period, the puppy stays with the raiser until he is ready for a veteran. “The smiles that we see on the veterans, the laughing and joking around that they are doing, that’s really what makes it worthwhile,” Khol said.

Opinion: Veterans deserve marijuana treatment option (Billings Gazette)
Misuse of prescription opioids has been ravaging the nation over the last several years, and our state has not been spared. Prescription overdoses are responsible for killing more Montanans than cocaine, meth and heroin combined, according to the attorney general’s office. Even those of us who have not been affected directly probably know someone who has. For chronic pain sufferers, opioid misuse is a near-constant threat. Even worse, taking prescription painkillers over a long period of time can have debilitating side effects, especially as the patient’s tolerance increases with ongoing use. Thankfully, some of the most vulnerable patients in our state have access to another option — medical marijuana. Montana’s medical marijuana program provides patients with conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS a safer treatment plan than prescription opioids. Medical marijuana presents a much lower risk of dependence, and there has never been a lethal overdose. Unfortunately, Montana’s veterans, numbering 100,000 in this state, are not given the same options. In fact, VA providers are prohibited from discussing the benefits of medical marijuana, even in states where it is legal. Veterans who struggle with painful injuries have little choice but to try prescription opioids. A recent study of more than 140,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans revealed they are more likely to engage in high-risk opioid use and, therefore, are more susceptible to overdoses. Despite this knowledge, veterans continue to be prescribed opioids at a rate that far surpasses the rest of the nation. We also know that veterans suffer from high rates of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, and that studies show medical marijuana can help alleviate their symptoms. It is cruel to place additional obstacles in the way of vets who wish to treat their condition with healthier alternatives. VA providers are unable to recommend medical marijuana due to a directive from the Veterans Health Administration. Though this directive expired in January, it continues to be enforced until a new directive is issued. … Our veterans have been through so much. Why are we making things harder for them once they return home? In light of all the ailments that our veterans struggle with, it is a tragedy that the federal government is preventing them from receiving treatment that could help them.

UCLA’s Operation Mend to help veterans with hidden wounds of war (LA Daily News)
For years, the main mission for the team behind UCLA’s Operation Mend was to heal the visible wounds of the servicemen and women coming home from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. Surgeons and specialists replaced skin seared by fire. They reconstructed faces disfigured by snipers’ bullets, and rehabilitated muscle and bone long thought lost on the battefields of the Middle East. On Wednesday, those who founded Operation Mend in 2007 announced the healing would go a little deeper. Veterans suffering from mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress will now also be served under Operation Mend as part of an expanded program that will include UCLA’s experts in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and integrative. The goal, organizers said, is to help veterans suffering from the hidden wounds of war that linger along with physical scars. “This is a new day, a program we can be proud of,” said retired Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, an executive advisor to the Ronald A. Katz Center for Collaborative Military Medicine at UCLA and the former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army. “The addition of this program to the Operation Mend portfolio makes UCLA the civilian leader in providing needed care to post-9/11 veterans,” he said. “If every institution were doing the same, we could satisfy the unmet needs of veterans and their families for this critical care.” The expanded program will focus on post-9/11 veterans and their families and is now part of a new national health system called Warrior Care Network, funded in part by the Wounded Warrior Project. Both the Wounded Warrior Project and Warrior Care Network have committed $100 million over three years to fund the program. Along with UCLA, the Warrior Care Network includes programs in Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago. Chiarelli said 67 percent of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from either traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic brain disorder. The six-week program will help veterans and their families with their psychological needs. Involving them in the healing arts, working with horses and using an ancient Chinese practice of focused on breathing and movement. Four veterans and their families already participated in the program, and another 10 will start in May. At least 80 veterans are expected each year and there is no cost for them and their families to participate. After three weeks at UCLA, veterans and their families return home and use telecommuting and social networking to keep in touch. The goal is to encourage each veteran to take control of his or her own healthcare, said Dr. Jo Sornborger, director of psychological health programs for Operation Mend. … Founded in 2007 by Ronald Katz, Operation Mend has served 152 patients in need of reconstructive surgery. … Service members or their family members interested in the program or Operation Mend can visit www.operationmend.ucla.edu or call 310-267-2251.

Colorado delegation slams VA secretary over reform comments (Denver Post)
Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation slammed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald this week for touting his agency’s reform accomplishments during a Denver speech. The VA has overhauled its construction practices, shortened patient-care waiting lists, become more efficient at meeting veterans’ needs and made other improvements, McDonald said during a speech Monday. His comments about how the agency has responded in the wake of its Aurora hospital construction debacle, struck a particular nerve with some in the Colorado delegation. “I was deeply disappointed in McDonald’s speech … and it says everything about why he has not made a difference in cleaning up the VA,” U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, wrote in an e-mail to The Denver Post on Monday. “Pure spin. No substance. He is merely a place holder.” McDonald spoke before about 400 people — Coffman and several other politicians among them — at a United Veterans Committee of Colorado banquet on April 10. The VA did not respond to several efforts seeking reaction from McDonald to the lawmakers’ comments. On Sunday, McDonald spoke of issues that have marred his time since taking charge in July 2014, including the $1.6 billion construction project at the VA medical center in Aurora which is $1 billion over budget and years behind schedule. An internal investigation found rampant mismanagement, but the VA has said no one currently with the agency will be disciplined. … Coffman said McDonald has refused “to acknowledge the depth of the problems at the VA.” Other federal elected officials at the banquet struck a similar note. “The VA’s conclusion that no further personnel action was necessary to hold individuals accountable is an abdication of its responsibility,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said in an e-mail to The Post. Particularly troublesome to the Colorado delegation was McDonald’s characterization of the agency working in tandem with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in finishing the long-overdue VA center. … McDonald confirmed a criminal investigation was ongoing into the project’s mismanagement, but reiterated that those responsible are already gone. … Coffman, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, also fumed when McDonald described a waiting-list scandal that erupted in the VA’s Veterans’ Health Administration in Phoenix in 2014 and spread nationwide as having stemmed from a lack of training. “I can’t believe he said that,” Coffman wrote. “It had nothing to do with a lack of training but was fundamental to a culture of corruption. VA employees manipulated their appointment wait records to show that they were meeting specific goals in order to receive cash bonuses.”

VA senior executive bonus ban advances (Government Executive)
Senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department would not receive bonuses in fiscal 2017 under a major House spending bill approved by the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. The fiscal 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations measure now heads to the House floor, and includes a provision that prohibits the department from using any funds in the legislation for VA senior executives’ performance awards. It’s the first time the language has been included in the base MilCon-VA spending bill. An amendment banning bonuses for all VA senior executives was successfully added to the fiscal 2016 MilCon-VA legislation, but was not included in the eventual omnibus package Congress had to pass at the end of last year to avoid a government shutdown. There have been other legislative efforts over the past few years to limit or prohibit VA’s senior executive corps from receiving annual performance awards, which they are eligible for under Title 5. The Senior Executives Association… opposed the bill’s provision. “A universal ban would only serve to increase the already taxing difficulty the VA is currently facing when it comes to attracting and retaining talented senior executives,” wrote SEA Interim President Jason Briefel in an April 12 letter to the full committee. “Ending the pay-for-performance system entirely—which is what this provision would essentially do for VA senior executives—would have a harmful effect on employee morale and agency performance.” Briefel also pointed out that the VA secretary “already has ultimate authority to raise, lower, or concur with an SES performance award, and limiting the ability of the secretary to reward the VA’s best executives will be detrimental to the agency’s mission delivery.” The fiscal 2017 MilCon-VA bill appropriates money for housing, training and equipment for military personnel and funds vets’ benefits and programs. The legislation provides $81.6 billion in discretionary funding, $1.8 billion more than the fiscal 2016 level. That discretionary funding figure includes $73.5 billion for the VA alone; adding mandatory funding to the number, the legislation includes a total of $176.1 billion for the VA.