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TREA Legislative Update for August 11, 2006

Congress is on its August recess so the next few Updates will be more Washington Updates rather than Legislative Updates. The Senate is expected to return on Tuesday September 6 and the House of Representatives on Wednesday September 7.

Arrests made for the Burglary of the VA Laptop and Hard Drive-On Sunday August 6, 2006 the Maryland Montgomery County Police Department announced the arrest of three men for the residential burglary that included the Laptop and hard drive that contained personal information of 24.5 million U.S. Veterans. Jesus Alex Pineda, age 19,and Christian Brian Montano, also age 19 both of Rockville as well as an unnamed minor were arrested for the burglary.

 On June 28 the U.S. Park Police received information that led to the return of the lap top and hard drive. Law enforcement has now concluded that this was a residential burglary and the alleged perpetrators were not looking for or aware of the existence of the VA data. Jewelry and cash were also stolen from the home.  

The investigation now confirms that the individuals responsible for this residential burglary did not specifically target this home and were not specifically seeking to steal a laptop. They did not know that the hard drive contained veterans' information, until the case and the reward was publicized. This gives reassurance to the millions of veterans that their personal information was not compromised. As the investigation continues it is expected that these three suspects will be tied to other residential burglaries that occurred in the Wheaton area in the month of May.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson released the following statement:

"I commend the FBI, Montgomery County Police, VA's Office of Inspector General and other law enforcement agencies for their professionalism and diligence throughout this investigation. Today's announcement that arrests have been made is good news."

But Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water-Subcontractor Notifies VA of Missing Computer with Vet Files-On Monday Unisys Corporation, a VA subcontractor working on insurance collections for VA medical centers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, informed the VA that one of their laptop computers was missing from its offices in Reston, Virginia. It contained personal information of veterans who received treatment at the two centers in the last four years.

Early estimates are that it may include up to 40,000 records ( 5,000 from Philadelphia, 11,00 from Pittsburgh 2,000 deceased veterans and as many as 20,000 additional records from the Pittsburgh medical center.)

“VA’s Inspector General, the FBI and local law enforcement are conducting a thorough investigation of this matter,” said the Honorable R. James Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs. “VA is making progress to reform its information technology and cyber security procedures, but this report of a missing computer at a subcontractor’s secure building underscores the complexity of the work ahead as we establish VA as a leader in data and information security,”

Investigators are working on this incident with the full cooperation of Unisys. VA is also working with Unisys regarding the offer of credit monitoring and individual notifications to those who may be affected. “

And Congress Reacts-On Tuesday Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called for the immediate resignation of VA Secretary Nicholson due to the Unisys theft. Senator Reid said,” Enough is enough… Less than a month after promising to make the VA the ‘ gold standard’ in data security Secretary Nicholson has again presided over loss of the personal information of thousands more veterans.” On Wednesday the Chairmen of both the House and Senate VA Committees dismissed the call for Nicholson’s resignation. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Larry E. Craig, (R-Idaho) said "It is clear that there is a systems problem with VA data security which must be fixed. Jim Nicholson and his staff have received that message from me, and they have received that message from other members of the committee. They are working hard to put systems in place so that incidents like these don’t happen again. But calling for Secretary Nicholson’s resignation is over the top. It does not and will not solve the problem. A computer was stolen from a private contractor’s highly secured office building. I am fairly confident that Jim Nicholson did not break in and steal that computer. A criminal did. The FBI and local police are working to solve that crime and the contractor is working to provide a financial solution to ensure veterans. We are in an election season, with several primaries being held today, so I don’t think anyone is surprised that the leader of the Democrats is calling for the resignation of the former leader of the Republican Party

Chairman Steve Buyer (R-IN) also dismissed the call for Nicholson’s resignation: Nicholson “inherited an information management system that has been festering over the years with inherent cultural problems. He has accepted responsibility and is taking action to both develop a system worthy of the veterans it serves and to reform the dysfunctional culture at VA.”

Senate Passes Omnibus Veterans Legislation S2694-Just before leaving for the August break the Senate passed an omnibus bill of veterans legislation including several bills that had been sponsored this year. It includes a provision to allow veterans to choose to hire an attorney for the application and appeals process within the VA and up through the Board of Veterans Appeals. At this time a veteran cannot hire an attorney for the administrative law process. (Presently a veteran may hire an attorney if he or she is bringing an appeal to the Federal District Court.)

Many Veterans groups, who already provide veterans free representation through the administrative process by accredited veterans hearing officers are opposed to the proposal

“Doing away with this outdated law will allow veterans – like all other adults in this nation – to have the assistance of counsel if they so choose,” Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, said.

The bill passed by the Senate includes provisions from more than a dozen other bills. It includes: Establish an Office of Rural Health within the VA’s existing health office (S 2433); Expand veterans’ benefits to cover nursing home care at state nursing homes for veterans with service-connected disabilities (S 2762); Make Indian tribal organizations eligible to establish veterans’ cemeteries on trust lands (S 2659). Currently, the VA Secretary cannot authorize such grants for tribal lands; Authorize accelerated payments of survivors’ and dependents’ educational assistance in certain circumstances (S 3363); Increase the supplemental life insurance available to totally disabled veterans, from $20,000 to $30,000 (S 1252); Establish Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence within the VA health system (S 1537); Repeal fixed, four-year terms for the undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for health and undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for benefits, leaving those officials to serve at the pleasure of the president (S 2634); Require the secretary of the Army to remove the remains of Russell Wayne Wagner from Arlington National Cemetery (S 1759) Wagner was convicted of a 1994 double murder, and the son of his victims — an elderly married couple — have asked that that the cemetery remove the remains; Authorize a pilot program to provide caregiver assistance and non-institutional care services to veterans (S 2753); Improve services, housing, and assistance provided to homeless veterans (S 3545).

Enrollment in TRICARE Reserve Select-

As of August 4, 2006   
Step 1–48,540 entered agreements by member
Step 2– 7,690 executed agreements on DEERS
Step 3–11,449 Total plans (count by RC v. TRICARE region)
            3,242 Total plans disenrolled  
          14,691 Total plans ever enrolled
            3,648 member-only plan
            1,011 member-only plans disenrolled
            4,659 Total member-only ever enrolled
            7,801 family plans
            2,231 family plans disenrolled  
          10,032 family plans ever enrolled
            32,637 Total beneficiaries entered in DEERS
            9,216 Total beneficiaries disenrolled.
          41,853 Total beneficiaries ever enrolled

DOD Announces Regulations For New Healthcare Benefit For Surviving Minor Children Of Service Members Who Dies On Active Duty-TRICARE Management Activity (TMA) announced the procedures it intends to use to implement the improvements contained in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act FY 2006, signed into law on Jan. 6, 2006 (they still need to publish their proposed rules in the Federal Register and receive comments). Among the improvements found in the NDAA 06 is the new rule allowing surviving children of service members who died while serving on active duty for more than 30 days, to continue TRICARE Prime, Extra and Standard benefits at the active duty family member payment rate for the duration of their TRICARE eligibility. They may also be able to receive benefits under the Extended Care Health Option and TRICARE Prime Remote for Active Duty Family Member programs. Surviving spouses maintain TRICARE Prime, Extra and Standard benefits at the active duty family member rate for only three years. At the end of the three year period, eligible surviving spouses continue TRICARE Prime, Extra and Standard benefits at the retiree pay rate.

VA Rejects Proposal for Single Boston Medical Center-The VA has rejected a proposal to close its 4 Boston hospitals and create a new single medical center for the whole metropolitan center. The proposal has been being studied for the last 2 years.

The Secretary of the VA, the Honorable R. James Nicholson stated: “VA is committed to continuing world-class medical care that is convenient and accessible for Boston-area veterans. VA will provide veterans with the care they need in the locations that make sense.”

Nicholson’s announcement comes after reviewing input from veterans groups, academic affiliates, labor unions, employees and other stakeholders, along with the recommendations of a local advisory panel that has held public meetings.