It may be the Defense authorization bill, but veterans watch it closely

Veterans groups keep a close eye on authorization and appropriations for the military. They’re pleased with increases in housing allowances for troops planned for 2023. To discuss this and more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the director of the national security division of the American Legion, Mario Marquez.

Interview transcript:

Mario Marquez
We’re satisfied for the current increases, over 500 million of additional housing and allowances have been allocated to counteract specifically inflation...

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Veterans groups keep a close eye on authorization and appropriations for the military. They’re pleased with increases in housing allowances for troops planned for 2023. To discuss this and more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the director of the national security division of the American Legion, Mario Marquez.

Interview transcript:

Mario Marquez
We’re satisfied for the current increases, over 500 million of additional housing and allowances have been allocated to counteract specifically inflation and the skyrocketing cost of rent. I can remember thinking back to the mid 90s, where our pay was much lower than it is today, and having to collect cans just to have enough money for gas. And I tell you, we’ve come a long way over the years over the decades to the point where I retired where you didn’t hear much about any military family. However, with the impact of inflation, some of the impacts of the war in Ukraine coming out of the pandemic, I think a lot of our military families have been subjected to some of those conditions that I went through as a young married Marine that was trying to struggle payday to payday. And so a lot of these allowances while they are good, they’re potentially temporary. And we the American Legion would like to see some long-term more permanent fixes come into play, specifically in Basic Allowance for Housing and housing areas.

Tom Temin
Yeah, that seems to be a sore point throughout a military career is housing. And we’ve seen a lot of instances of substandard housing and housing in poor condition. And the military’s worked hard, but it’s a long road they’ve been on to get housing up to snuff, just from a physical standpoint.

Mario Marquez
Sure. And I’m glad you bring that up. So currently in American Legion is standing up a Military Quality of Life Program, where we will travel to installations globally. And we hope to engage and partner with Department of Defense to make assessments of quality of life. Specifically, we’re going to focus on, matters of privatized housing, accountability, the lack of maintenance, upkeep and providing an inventory by these housing companies. And we can’t afford to treat the military that is supposed to be the lead example for the world of what right looks like. We can no longer afford to not invest in their housing and living conditions, or their infrastructure are many of our buildings across our installations are over 50 years old, average. And we have to do better. And so that’s one of the things that the American Legion is going to be fighting for over the next several years is significant increase in quality of life. Both through military construction, privatized housing, and benefits and additional things that we can do for them so that we can keep them and we can recruit them.

Tom Temin
Right. And there is a pay increase for military members 4.6% coming next year. And that’s I guess, for also civilian employees, too, because of the way the President’s pay agent operates. It’s a strange process. But there was specific mention in recent legislation for the military of that 4.6% raise. And that’s going to devolve to also greater pension benefits, just because the base will be higher.

Mario Marquez
That’s correct. And any pay raise is always wonderful. 4.6 is highest raise, I believe, in 20 years. I just retired two years ago, but I don’t remember anything over 3% in recent memory. So that does help, it does not match inflation. And when you add the measures that were added, such as the housing increases, the basic needs allowance, which unfortunately, we do have families living in poverty. Too many families. I think is just the beginning of where we need to go. And so if you want to have a quality military, you have to match the civilian sector when it comes to talent management, to just making people feel like they want to be in stay in the military, and it’s worth the risk of putting their lives on the line.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Mario Marquez, he’s director of the National Security Division of the American Legion. And looking at the National Defense Authorization Act for 2023. And also other parts of the appropriations bills which finally made it through. However, sausage like that process was, what do you like in what’s ahead outside of the areas we just discussed? And what do you think is missing? Let’s talk about what’s good in the NDAA so far.

Mario Marquez
Something that has not received a lot of publicity, at least I don’t think it’s received enough is that the NDAA launches a comprehensive study on personnel compensation, with the intent of improving pay competitiveness and enhancing retention. It’s an all volunteer force. There’s already been discussion of going back to the draft. We don’t ever want to go back to that. That’s an extreme case scenario situation. And so I believe this will help all entities involved both in the military, outside, academia, veterans service organizations to really analyze and assess just how much the value of serving your nation should be. And I’m really happy and the American Legion is going to be ecstatic, we’re going to be engaged, we’re going to involve ourselves in this. And we’re going to make sure that the Congress and others involved truly conduct a professional, comprehensive study that can give us some actionable intelligence as I would say, so that we can act on it and push for further legislation, probably in the form of pay increases is in additional benefits.

Additional benefits could take what form do you feel?

More access to childcare. So there are some provisions in this bill that provide discounts at military installation child development centers, a discount is great, but it’s still very expensive for a young E3 and E4, with two or three children. 50% of their paycheck can go just to childcare, and that’s just not good enough. We need to be able to provide our families with a lot more reduction in cost, and services like that, because that is a major issue that I hear all the time as I travel across different military installations. Childcare is a major, major cost. While that’s a win in this NDAA, I’d like to see a little more coverage of the childcare costs, because that’s extensive.

Tom Temin
So there’s one gap that you’d like to see. And there’s another NDAA coming up almost before we think about it, it’s going to be thinking about 2024. So, what are you going to be urging Congress to do for the next NDAA and in the next set of appropriations?

Mario Marquez
One of the things that is in this NDAA, is it prohibits DoD from reducing staffing in the number of medical treatment facilities. In order to ensure that our servicemembers and their families have access to care. However, simultaneously, the Defense Health Agency has already began notifying veterans that they are no longer a priority, they may be seen on a space available basis. But that is concerning, because if we are telling DHA that they can not reduce where they’re at now, they’re already seeing veterans, we’re essentially kicking the veteran community out into the local community system that is not too faithful in the TRICARE system. TRICARE does not pay fast enough, they don’t pay enough, and so our veterans are essentially going to a system that doesn’t know veteran health care, as well as the military does. And so that is a concern. And I hope that we’re able to work something out between VA and the Department of Defense so that we can still allow our veterans more access to those treatment facilities and installations, that provide critical care.

It’s really a mental health issue. It’s an environment of awareness and relative comparison to what a veteran grew up in. And so it’s like when they go to VA, if they feel alienated, and they don’t feel welcomed, they’re not going to go seek medical help. And so we don’t want to put our veterans out on the street. So we’re going to help and work toward making sure that DoD and VA leave no veteran left behind, and that we don’t reduce the number of doctors, physicians and staff that provide full services for active duty and the veteran community.

Tom Temin
VA policy now is to fulfill the MISSION Act, which is community providers where it’s difficult for the veteran to get to say, a VA Center, or maybe they prefer that. So it sounds like you would add the military medical facilities almost as part of the MISSION Act. In effect, if not in legislation.

Mario Marquez
Yes, sir. I would say that’s already been going on the precedents have been set in previous years. And the more opportunity we take away for access for veterans and more options, the increasing chances we’re going to have that they’re going to be not taken care of, they’re not going to get the specialized care that they need. Even though there’s plans in place for those types of things. Veterans are just not comfortable getting away from the military treatment facilities, or VA hospitals and you put them away into a community care system. Sometimes it’s further especially in remote areas, and they’re not comfortable doing that, and I hear that daily. Add to that, the number of pharmacies that have come out of the network, we’re trying to get some of those back. But the reduction in access to medicine, through the pharmacy networks is also a growing concern. And we’re going to hope to get an increase of pharmacies that get back into the TRICARE network so that veterans do have access to their medicines that are critical for their health.

Tom Temin
Let me ask you about the AIRS commission that got deep sixed. That was a big plan to reallocate resources of the VA, tear down some of the old hospitals, build new ones. And what’s your sense of what they want to do next? Just to play devil’s advocate, why should there be a 75-year-old hospital in an area that veterans are moving away from at the cost of building a nice new one where they’re moving to? That’s a little bit of a cartoonish way to put it, but that’s the general idea. And now they just don’t talk about retiring old places, but only building new ones and maybe that’s not that sustainable?

Mario Marquez
The American Legion, we’ve been tracking the numbers on migration of veterans, we’re keeping a really close eye on that, especially when it comes to rural health care and making sure that they have access. The American Legion submitted a nomination for the AIR Commission, and we were not selected. But in the end, we advocated that if it was not going to be done, right, if veterans were going to lose access to care, before appropriate replacement facilities, modern facilities were built, and we were not going to support it. And in the end, the AIR Commission went away. So our position at the moment is that proper modern facilities, within equidistant of the existing facilities are built. And facilities to support the migration of veterans, then we should not get rid of our medical facilities, because that is a loss of care and treatment for our veterans. And one of the things that’s going to continue to come out of all the toxic exposure in the 20-year-wars, is you’re going to find more and more veterans that are going to come up with symptoms and exposures from all their years in combat. I did four tours in Iraq alone. And I am 100%. And I have a lot of different issues, I was exposed to a lot of different things. And I’m just one guy. They just did some surveys, and over a million veterans have been identified and 40% have been identified as having some kind of symptoms.

Tom Temin
Yes, you are on top of your numbers, that’s for sure. And this is a concern of VA. And just as a final question, What’s your general sense of how’s the Veterans Affairs Department doing?

Mario Marquez
I think VA is doing the best job that they can. They still have things to work on. I’ve had the good fortune before this job. I was a director of veterans affairs for the American Legion. So while I was in that position, I had the opportunity to engage the current secretary. And we talked a lot about morale of the staff. If the staff wants to be there, if they feel supported, if they’re not overwhelmed, if they have the tools, the IT systems, and the support of not only the leadership, but also the veteran community and the trust and confidence from the veteran community. I think VA will do a good job they have the largest budget they’ve had in decades. But we just have to make sure that those monies are spent in the right areas where the need is. We have to give them more money for that infrastructure we talked about regarding the former AIR Commission issue, and that we have to keep improving. And I realize it’s expensive. But the price of war comes with a price on the backend. And we owe our veterans everything that they need for the rest of their lives. And if we continue to go to war, we’re going to continue to have this problem.

 

 

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