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VA Releases New Version of the GI Bill® Comparison Tool

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today launched an improved version of the GI Bill®Comparison Tool, which was first launched in February 2014.  The GI Bill Comparison Tool is designed to make it easier for Veterans, Servicemembers, and dependents to estimate their GI Bill education benefits and learn more about VA’s approved college, university, and other education and training programs across the country.  It also provides key information about college affordability and value so beneficiaries can choose the best education program to meet their needs.

In the past 6 months, nearly 350,000 people have accessed the tool on VA’s GI Bill website.  The top schools searched by users include: American Public University, Harvard, University of Texas at Austin, Arizona State University, and University of Washington. 

“We are excited to see how Veterans respond to the wealth of information now available on the updated GI Bill Comparison Tool” said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. “We’re grateful for the chance to work with our partners at the departments of Defense and Education (ED) to ensure beneficiaries are informed education consumers.”

The updated version of the GI Bill Comparison Tool has new functionality, including a more robust GI Bill benefits calculator and additional information pertinent to the Veteran population (e.g., identifies schools with student Veteran groups, VetSuccess on Campus program, and those that have agreed to the 8 Keys to Success). The GI Bill calculator provides a personalized estimate of Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition and fee, housing allowance, and book stipend benefits that would potentially be paid to the student.  The calculator prepopulates the tuition and fee estimates from the ED’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The Veteran indicator section now contains new information on schools’ student Veterans groups, VetSuccess on Campus program and Yellow Ribbon agreement status.  

The GI Bill Comparison Tool is one item in a series of resources VA has launched in response to the President’s Executive Order 13607, signed April 27, 2012, which directs agencies to implement and promote “Principles of Excellence” for educational institutions that interact with Veterans, Servicemembers and their families; and to ensure beneficiaries have the information they need to make informed choices about VA education benefits and approved programs. As students return to school this fall, VA is committed to providing the support and information they need to succeed.

Since April 2012, VA has deployed the GI Bill Comparison Tool, the GI Bill Feedback System, and offered a free academic-readiness tool online.  In addition, VA, the Department of Education and Department of Defense have agreed to new Veteran-specific outcome measures and signed a memorandum of understanding to exchange information, which will ensure greater compliance from schools receiving military and Federal education benefits. VA successfully trademarked GI Bill to prevent its fraudulent use for recruiting purposes and to protect this publicly-owned intellectual property.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a comprehensive education benefit created by Congress in 2008.  Veterans and Servicemembers who have served on active duty for 90 or more days since Sept. 10, 2001 are eligible for the benefit. The Veterans Benefits Administration, which administers the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, has distributed more than $43 billion in the form of tuition and other education-related payments to more than one million Veterans, Servicemembers, and their families; and to the universities, colleges, and trade schools they attend.  The GI Bill Comparison Tool can be found at: www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/comparison

Veteran Benefits: Know What You Can Save

Military service is undeniably challenging. Long deployments, Permanent Change of Stations, stress
stemming from what seems like everything, and of course being away from your family for long periods
are just some of the rigors of life in the military. Not to mention the financial adversity commonly
experienced by service members. Often, obstacles rooted in money go unacknowledged or completely
overlooked. While many of these challenges are unavoidable, there is plenty that can be done when it
comes to protecting yourself financially.

Stability is crucial for veterans adjusting to civilian life. Low pay coupled with high debt is the beginning
of a very slippery slope for recently discharged vets. Many entitlements exist for service members;
however, a divide exists between what’s available and a working knowledge of what’s available on the
individual level. Those in the military have options; they just need to know what those options are.

Relocation:

Active duty personnel spend on average $1,725 in moving expenses during a Permanent Change of
Station (PCS). Reassignment happens frequently, on average every two to four years. Emotionally and
financially this can take a huge toll. Did you know that lost, stolen or damaged property is reimbursable
by the government? Further protection exists in the form of cheap military renters insurance and auto
insurance. Incurred moving costs are also tax deductible.

Education:

Student loan debt is a huge problem for military members looking to further their education. Often,
educational loans taken out by military personnel are avoidable. The Veterans Education Assistance Act
can cover up to the entirety of the tuition for an in-state public university, as well as providing $1,000 in
annual supply costs. This benefit can also be used for housing costs in excess of $1,300 a month.

Healthcare:

Healthcare related costs are the most prominent cause of bankruptcy in this country. The price of
healthcare continues to increase annually; many veterans qualify for government subsidized health care.
Those ineligible may still be entitled to discounted coverage.

Travel & Retail:

While not as earth shattering as defrayed healthcare or education costs, many small scale travel and
retail benefits are available to service members. Membership with Veterans Advantage provides military
members with discounts as high as 10 percent at many major retail outlets. Those who travel frequently
can enjoy the advantages of discounted prices. Amtrak, for example, offers a 15 percent discount to
veterans.

Homeownership:

When compared to FHA loans, the VA Home Loan offers many more advantages to veterans. The
guaranteed loan includes low interest rates, lesser underwriting guidelines, $0 down and 100 percent
financing. Advantageously, vets who have experienced prior financial hardships such as short sales,
foreclosures and bankruptcy filings may still qualify if they are current on all payments.
These are just a few of the many offerings available to military members. The challenge is making sure
those who benefit from this information receive it. VA Home Loan Centers encourages everyone to learn
as much as they can about military benefits.

-Noah Perkins

A proud Bostonian and University of Massachusetts alum, Noah currently lives in San
Diego. He works as the CMS for VA Home Loan Centers, a lender sponsored by the VA,
working to assist vets and active duty service members attain affordable housing. To learn
more about the VA loan benefit, visit; https://www.vahomeloancenters.org/

Get the Low Down: How ‘Choice Card’ and $15B Will Help Veterans Get Care

By Tom Philpott

Special to Stars and Stripes
Published: July 31, 2014

Note: In addition to the $15 billion, the Congressional Budget Office reported Thursday a measure in the bill calling for leases on 27 new medical centers in 15 states and Puerto Rico would cost about $1.27 billion.

Veterans reading only headlines, hearing only sound bites, might have a few misconceptions about how Congress and the VA plan to use non-VA healthcare providers to ensure more timely and convenient access to care.

A magical sounding item called a “Veteran’s Choice Card,” for example, won’t be a limitless credit card given qualified veterans to cover whatever health services they receive from whatever physician they use.

And veterans not already enrolled in VA health care won’t gain accelerated access to outside care as promised by the legislation – unless they serve in areas of combat operations within five years of enrollment.

The centerpiece of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of (HR 3230) is a special $10 billion Veterans Choice Fund.  Over the next three years, VA is to use the fund as needed to buy care from non-VA care providers for veterans if they face long waits for VA care – defined initially as more than 30 days – or if they reside more than 40 miles from VA care.

The intent is to eliminate VA patient wait lists that some VA health administrators and staff conspired to hide in recent years, thus compromising the integrity of performance reports and putting patients’ health at risk.

VA leaders and veteran service organizations prefer to attack wait times through improved resourcing.  They want VA spending raised to meet actual patient demand from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the expansion of diseases presumed caused by defoliants used in Vietnam, and from higher costs of caring for aging veterans.

So HR 3230 also authorizes VA to spend $5 billion more to expand its own capacity to deliver care, by hiring more medical and support staff and also building and leasing more space.

House-Senate conferees, in shaping the final bill, categorized the Choice Fund as emergency money so the $10 billion gets added to the nation’s debt but not to VA budgets.  The $5 billion for more VA-delivered care is to be paid through cuts elsewhere in VA, including executive bonuses and by deferring planned rate cuts for some types of VA home loans.

The legislation mandates use of a new Veteran’s Choice Card but it isn’t a golden key to private sector care.  It will be more like an informational insurance card to be presented to non-VA health care providers to identify the veteran and to verify eligibility for episodes of care that, sometime earlier, were arranged through and approved by a VA care coordinator.

The administrative challenges ahead for VA in coordinating a vast expansion of private sector care, monitoring outside care quality and integrating those medical records back into VA health care will be profound.  But the bill is said to set aside only $300 million for these added tasks.

Indeed, in reviewing the new law’s requirements, VA officials are weighing whether current Veteran Identification Cards (VICs), which are issued when veterans enroll in VA health care, might be modified to serve as the “choice card” that the new law mandates.

Other details in the reform package will disappoint reformers who seek to fully “privatize” VA care.  The bill is a series of compromises between near-term action to address the patient wait-time scandal and steps to shore up the integrated VA health care system so prized by many veterans and their service organizations.  Here’s more on how non-VA care will grow:

ELIGIBILITY – The hurdles to gain easy access to non-VA care go beyond how far veterans reside from a VA clinic or how long their wait for care.  To be eligible, veterans must have enrolled in VA health care by Aug. 1, 2014 or, if they enroll later, they must have served on active duty in a theater of combat operations within five years of enrolling.

These restrictions address cost concerns fiscal conservatives had after the Congressional Budget Office projected that up to two million more veterans would drop current health insurance and enroll with VA if given the chance to use current doctors and have VA foot the bill.

NO FIRM 30-DAY GOAL – Architects of HR 3230, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), would like non-VA care offered to any vet who can’t get a VA appointment within 30 days.  But their legislation allows VA to set a different wait-time goal if they can defend it.  What VA finally decides will be part of interim rules for implementing the law, to be published within 90 days of President Obama signing the bill into law.

The bill would require that if VA can’t offer a timely appointment then it must inform the veteran electronically or, if the veteran chooses, by mail, and explain that outside care is authorized.  Last year, VA spent $4.8 billion on non-VA health care but half of that involved emergency services.

40 MILES AS CROW FLIES – Veterans who reside more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or who must travel by air, boat or ferry to access VA care are to be offered non-VA care instead. VA is to use “geodesic distance” or the shortest route between two points on Earth, or, if you like,  “as the crow flies.”  VA’s early estimate is that 500,000 vets will qualify.

However, House-Senate conferees in their explanatory report on HR 3230, say they do not intend the 40-mile criteria “to preclude veterans who reside closer” to a VA facility “from accessing care through non-VA providers, particularly if the VA facility…provides limited services.”

So VA will have to clarify in regulation what 40 miles really means.

CHOICE OF PROVIDER – Not all veterans who become eligible for non-VA care will get to choose their outside provider, and not every non-VA care provider will opt to treat veterans through the VA coordinated care program, even if the vets are existing patients.  One issue for physicians will be the level of reimbursement and another the timeliness of VA payments.

VA has existing contracts with individual physicians and with pools of private sector providers.  Many more such arrangements are expected.  But VA cannot pay rates higher than Medicare allows, with exceptions possible if care is delivered in very rural areas.

Timeliness of VA payments to non-VA care providers has been a significant concern for years.  The reform bill has language urging VA officials to improve their payment procedures.

Cellular Broadcast Network Delivers Information Service to Veterans

MONTGOMERY – The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs today announced that the state agency has launched the Alabama Veterans Cellular Broadcasting Network, a new cellular technology that delivers information to Veterans no matter where they are as the service is accessible worldwide.

“As a Veteran service provider, the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to informing Veterans and their family members of the services and benefits they have rightly earned and are entitled,” said W. Clyde Marsh, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs. “We are excited about this new technology that will improve our capability to expand the delivery and accessibility of important information to Veterans not only in Alabama, but internationally.”

The public can access information from the cellular network by dialing 1-231-460-1060. Once connected, the caller can choose from the following options: (1) benefits and services, (2) latest news and events, and (3) an option to leave comments and feedback. The cellular network can service unlimited callers simultaneously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The state VA is offering the service through a partnership with AudioCast365.com, an Alabama company based in Roanoke. The company will provide the cellular network and manage the technical programming at no cost to the state.

AUDIOCAST365.com provides cellular networks for “Sports and News Broadcast over Cellular” (SanBoc), “Broadcasting over Cellular” (BoC) and “Cellular News Briefs” (CNB) to government agencies, public schools, colleges, churches and companies nationwide.

Marsh said the ADVA is the first agency in in the nation to deliver Veterans information using the new cellular technology.

The Alabama Veterans Cellular Broadcasting Network will provide callers with weekly VA updates.

New Regulations Automate Burial Payments for Veterans’ Survivors

WASHINGTON – New burial regulations effective today will now allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to automatically pay the maximum amount allowable under law to most eligible surviving spouses more quickly and efficiently, without the need for a written application.

Under former regulations, VA paid burial benefits on a reimbursement basis, which required survivors to submit receipts for relatively small one-time payments that VA generally paid at the maximum amount permitted by law.

“VA is committed to improving the speed and ease of delivery of monetary burial benefits to Veterans’ survivors during their time of need,” said Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson. “The recent changes allow VA to help these survivors bear the cost of funerals by changing regulations to get them the benefits more quickly.”

This automation enables VA to pay a non-service-connected or service-connected burial allowance to an estimated 62,000 eligible surviving spouses out of a projected 140,000 claimants for burial benefits in 2014. Surviving spouses will be paid upon notice of the Veteran’s death using information already in VA systems. The burial allowance for a non-service-connected death is $300, and $2,000 for a death connected to military service.

This revised regulation will further expedite the delivery of these benefits to surviving spouses, reduce the volume of claims requiring manual processing, and potentially make available resources for other activities that benefit Veterans and their survivors.

For more information on monetary burial benefits, visit http://www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/claims-special-burial.asp.

VA Moves to Secure New Scheduling System

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) announced it is continuing the process to replace its medical appointment scheduling system through an acquisition process. Today, VA is hosting pre-solicitation “Industry Day” meetings with technology vendors to discuss the Department’s upcoming scheduling system acquisition.

“Our top priority is getting Veterans off waitlists and in to see their doctors,” said Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson. “We’re taking a series of immediate actions to ensure our Veterans receive the timely access to quality health care they have earned and deserve. We need lasting, long-term reforms, including a complete overhaul to replace the outdated technology for our scheduling system. Bringing an innovative scheduling product into our world-class electronic health record system is a crucial part of providing the scheduling staff in our facilities with the tools necessary to succeed. Our Veterans deserve nothing less than our best, and that’s exactly what we intend to give them.”

This Industry Day presents a unique opportunity for VA to communicate directly with potential vendors on all aspects of the upcoming scheduling system acquisition. The Industry Day serves as a face-to-face platform for exchanging information about business needs, industry best practices and challenges specific to VA’s scheduling system.

VA’s scheduling technical requirements are complex and require clear, well-articulated communication to ensure comprehensive understanding by industry and potential vendors. As part of today’s events, VA is conducting a live scheduling system architecture Q&A session to ensure potential solutions seamlessly interface with VA’s VistA electronic health record.

VA uses this type of event to facilitate communication with vendors and reduce the risk of misinterpretation and miscommunication on technical requirements. The information shared during the Industry Day will provide VA with a better understanding of what needs to be included in the upcoming scheduling system solicitation, with the ultimate goals of receiving solid proposals and reducing time to field new technologies.

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