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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Help for Vets, TRICARE Update, Pay Raise Prospects and More

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Once again, helping veterans appears to be high on Congress’ priority list this year. (These things were tried in 2014 without success—perhaps second time around is the charm.)

On Wednesday, a bi-partisan group of House lawmakers reintroduced H.R. 313, the 2015 Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act, which would give federal employees who also are disabled veterans 104 hours of leave for medical treatment during their first year on the job.

“It is unacceptable that our Wounded Warrior federal employees who are just starting out in the federal workforce are often faced with the difficult choice of having to take unpaid leave to attend their VA appointments or miss their medical visits,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., one of the sponsors.  

New feds begin their government careers with a zero sick leave balance, which makes it difficult for disabled veterans to keep medical appointments. The benefit would apply to those with a disability rating of 30 percent or greater. Senators John Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., plan to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

Earlier in the week, the House again passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named in honor of the late Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and veterans advocate Clay Hunt. The bill, which passed the chamber last year but was blocked in December in the Senate by retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would expand and improve mental health screening and suicide prevention programs at the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments. With Coburn’s departure from the Senate the bill appears headed for passage there as well. The legislation aims to eliminate some of the bureaucratic hurdles Hunt experienced when he was seeking care, before he took his own life. As House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., noted when he reintroduced the bill earlier this week,

“With an average of 22 veterans committing suicide each day, Clay was far from alone in his pain, and his family and friends are far from alone in their heartbreak over his loss. The last several years have seen significant increases in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ mental health and suicide prevention budget, staff, and programs; however, we have not seen a corresponding decrease in the number of our Nation’s heroes who take their own lives. What is more, for some groups of veterans, including female veterans and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, suicide rates are actually getting worse.”

The bill alone won’t solve the problem of suicide among veterans, but Miller said it was the first of many steps Congress will take to improve access to mental health care.

Some news for TRICARE beneficiaries: You’ll no longer receive certificates of creditable coverage when you lose eligibility—instead, you’ll get a notice informing you your coverage is ending.

As the good folks at TRICARE explain:

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed by Congress in 2011 changes the law so that insurers cannot deny you coverage based on preexisting conditions. Before this law went into effect, when you switched health plans, you had to prove to your new plan that you had coverage before joining them; otherwise they might not cover you for prior illnesses or injuries you had. With this change in the law, you don’t need a certificate to prove you had coverage.

When beneficiaries are notified their coverage is ending, TRICARE will provide information about other options, such as the Transition Assistance Management Program, as well as ways to explore health exchanges under Obamacare.

There was some pay news this week as well. Lawmakers in both chambers introduced legislation that would give all feds a whopping 3.8 percent pay raise in 2016 (by the admittedly low standards of federal raises, that qualifies as whopping). As GovExec’s Eric Katz noted Tuesday, the Federal Adjustment of Income Rates (FAIR) Act is more generous than the 3.3 percent raise fed-friendly lawmakers pushed for last year, which, given the 1 percent raise feds actually got, may tell you something about its prospects this year. But as Katz observed, last year the lawmakers waited until after Obama had issued his 1 percent proposal before introducing their bills. Obama hasn’t yet proposed a raise for 2016, so perhaps he’ll take a cue from the lawmakers and up the ante.   

In other pay news, the Air Force may soon be offering substantial bonuses to drone pilots to stem what is becoming a serious shortage. Stars and Stripes reports that only 85 percent of drone operator positions are filled, and that number is dropping. Service officials are considering the same kind of retention bonuses they offer other pilots—up to $25,000 per year.

(Image via Chris Singshinsuk/Shutterstock.com)

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