President Signs Defense Authorization Bill

Navy Dad and Son

President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY13 (NDAA FY13) on January 2, 2013. The bill contains provisions for a 1.7% pay raise, enhancements for military spouse employment programs, funding for supplemental impact aid for schools educating military children and enhanced consumer credit protections for service members and their families. We’ve included an outline of other provisions of importance to military families.

The National Military Family Association is pleased with the inclusion of several provisions we had championed in testimony and in our meetings on the Hill:

  • The NDAA authorizes $25 million for supplemental Impact Aid provided to school districts serving large numbers of military children, with an additional $5 million for districts with significant changes in enrollment of military children due to base closures, force structure changes, or force relocations. Also included was $5 million for schools with military children with severe disabilities.
  • Congress codified and expanded the authority for non-competitive hiring of certain military spouses in the federal civilian work force. Under current regulations, spouses of active duty service members on permanent change of station orders, spouses of 100 percent disabled service members injured while on active duty, and un-remarried widows or widowers of a service member who was killed on active duty are eligible for noncompetitive appointments. This provision expands this hiring authority to all military spouses who relocate to a service member’s permanent duty station, remove the 2 year limitation on length of hiring eligibility for spouses who relocate, and specify use of the Department of Veterans Affairs schedule for rating disabilities to determine a 100 percent disability-rating.

We know that military families will continue to need a robust family support system even as the war in Afghanistan winds down. So, we were happy to see the request for a report on the future of Department of Defense and service family support programs over the next 5 years. The report would include an assessment by the Secretary of the Army of the Family Readiness Support Assistant (FRSA) program and a description of any planned or anticipated changes to that program.

We have championed transitional support for service members and families who find themselves involuntarily separated in this time of downsizing. We are pleased to note the extension of authority to 2018 for two years of commissary and exchange benefits after separation and transitional use of military housing for up to 180 days following the date of separation. It is important to clarify that the extension of eligibility for housing does not authorize extension of basic allowance for housing (BAH).

Recently we raised concerns about the exclusion of Coast Guard, Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service (PHS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) beneficiaries in the expansion of TRICARE eligibility for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for family members with autism spectrum disorders in the House and Senate versions of the NDAA. The final version of the bill calls for a one-year pilot program to provide for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders, including ABA therapy for all beneficiaries under the TRICARE program.

While we appreciate that the pilot does not exclude any beneficiary from the pilot based on the sponsor’s branch of service, we are stunned by the language that was included in the conference report. It provides no guidance to DoD on the intent and extent of the pilot, which could be critical as the conference did not authorize any additional funding to support the pilot. Sadly, the conference report language continues to exclude beneficiaries with diagnoses other than autism spectrum disorder from access to ABA therapy and gives DoD the flexibility to continue its fight against the court order mandating coverage. Plus, because of the duration of the pilot and the timing of the report, it gives Congress an excuse not to make any changes in the benefit next year as well.

We hope DoD truly takes the opportunity to look at the care for ASD family members holistically both in the basic TRICARE system and through the ECHO program, and looks at all care needed, not just ABA therapy. There are many other treatments/therapies that could help this population other than ABA. We plan to monitor this pilot closely and provide input early and often.

Other provisions of interest to military families include:

 

Compensation/Retirement

  • Provides a pay raise for service members of 1.7 percent effective January 1, 2013.
  • Extends the authority to temporarily increase Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rates in areas impacted by natural disasters or experiencing a sudden influx of personnel.
  • Creates a Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission to review military compensation and retirement benefits, with the goal of ensuring the long-term viability of the all-volunteer force. The language creating the Commission states that presently serving and retired service members would be grandfathered to the present system.

TRICARE

  • Changes TRICARE retail and mail order pharmacy co-payments for 2013 and limits future increases through 2022 to increases in retiree cost of living adjustments (COLA).
  • Requires DoD to conduct a 5-year pilot program to refill prescription maintenance medications for TRICARE for Life beneficiaries through the TRICARE mail-order pharmacy.
  • Amends an existing annual reporting requirement on the evaluation of the TRICARE program to include reporting on access, cost, and quality for military children and dependents with disabilities and special needs. We had sought this inclusion of care provided to military children in the reporting requirements.
  • Expresses the sense of Congress that career members of the uniformed services and those who are medically retired, and their families endure unique and extraordinary demands and make extraordinary sacrifices and that access to quality health care services is an earned benefit during retirement in acknowledgement of their contributions of service and sacrifice.

Behavioral Health

  • Creates a pilot program to enhance DoD mental health support for National Guard and Reserve members, family members, and caregivers through community partnerships in research, treatment, education, and outreach on mental health, substance use disorders, and traumatic brain injury. The provision would also authorize DoD to award grants to these community partners.
  • Authorizes licensed clinical social workers and psychiatric advance practice registered nurses to conduct pre-separation medical exams for post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Requires the Army to carry out a research program on resilience of members of the Army to determine the effectiveness of the current Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program and to verify whether current Army practices are reducing trends in high risk or self-destructive behavior.

Transition Assistance

  • Authorizes the National Guard Bureau to establish a program to provide additional Transition Assistance Advisors in each State to assist members of the reserve components in accessing certain benefits and health care.

Installations/Housing

  • Cuts more than $660 million from the President’s budget for military construction and family housing projects.

Suicide Prevention

  • Requires DoD to establish a position with responsibility for oversight and management of all suicide prevention and resilience programs and all DoD and military Service preventative behavioral health programs.

Space A Travel

  • Codifies DoD’s authority to establish a program to allow Space-available travel to active and reserve component members, retirees, widows, and dependents on DoD aircraft beginning by January 1, 2014.

Military Lending

  • Enhances the protections for service members and family members concerning consumer credit, calls for punishments for those who violate those protections, and clarifies the definition of dependent for eligibility for the protection.

Family Advocacy

  • Requires the military Services to establish special victim teams for investigation, prosecution, and victim support in connection with child abuse, serious domestic violence, or sexual offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Items dropped in conference include:

  • Additional authorized leave for members of the Armed Forces upon birth or adoption of a child.
  • Protection of child custody arrangements for parents who are members of the Armed Forces. Our Association believes addressing this issue in individual states is appropriate since states have jurisdiction over the family courts where custody issues are decided and so are pleased this provision was dropped.
  • A provision to amend the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act by extending refinancing eligibility to service members who had to move from their home because of Permanent Change of Station orders or deployment.

Now What?

DoD will need time to implement some of the provisions we’ve listed above. It’s also important to note that this legislation does not reflect the negative effects of a possible sequestration. Our Association will work with DoD agencies whenever possible to ensure implementation meets the intent of Congress and most effectively serves military families. We’ll keep you posted as details emerge.

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