Meeting Minutes for April 2017

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Meeting Minutes - April 5, 2017

  • Call to order - 9:30, Invocation - Pledge of Allegiance
  • Greetings: Recognition of visitors and guests
  • Announcements - Ralph Donais, Chairman - Jerry Kyser, Vice Chairman.

    May 20th in DC is Operation Stand Together to recognize all the people who have been exposed to radiation while serving in the military over the years.

1. Federal Congressional Representatives

Senator Amy Klobuchar - Kurt Johnson

Senator Klobuchar introduced the Savings for Serviceman Act alongside Senator Thom Tillis. The bill will amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to decrease the distance away from home required for a member of a reserve component of the Armed Forces to be eligible for the above-the-line deduction for travel expenses from 100 miles to 50 miles. This will allow service members to receive travel credits similar to what Federal employees are already receiving. (Wording corrected after the meeting.)

*The senator is also working on the Sinai Service Recognition Act. This act would recognize that conflict as an active combat zone and would allow those service members to get tax-free benefits.

*We attended the undersecretary for the VHA's Care and Community to hear their proposals for fixing the Choice program.

Senator Al Franken - Alex Schueller

*The senator sponsored S706, the Quicker Benefits Act of 2017.

*The senator co-sponsored S699, the Honor Our Commitment Act of 2017. This is in regards to the recent changes that the secretary of the VA made to allow for mental health care for bad paper discharge veterans. This is to expand on those services.

*The senator co-sponsored S681, the Deborah Samson Act. This is an expansion of services for female veterans.

*The senator sponsored S667, The Reserve Components Benefits Parity Act. This creates parity for Reserve and Guard members who are deployed under 12-304-Bravo to regions that are not considered for retirement or education benefits.

*The senator co-sponsored S646, the Justice for Service Members and Veterans of 2017. This is an amendment to the Civil Relief Act, which expands on protections for service members who are deployed in their current employment.

*The senator co-sponsored S591, the Military Service Improvement Act of 2017.

*He was a co-sponsor for S473, the Educational Development for Troops and Veterans Act of 2017.

*He sponsored S434, Housing for Homeless Students Act of 2017, which closes a loophole that denies veteran students the ability to access or qualify for low income housing.

*He was a co-sponsor for S422, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017. This allows Agent Orange presumptive conditions for Blue Water veterans.

*The senator co-sponsored for S319, the Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act.

*The senator sponsored S283, The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Parity Act. This is connected to veterans exposed to nuclear cleanup.

*The senator co-sponsored S324, the State Veterans Home Day Care Improvement Act.

*The senator signed onto a letter to the secretary of the VA and the Commandant of the Marine Corps regarding the scandal through social media concerning military sexual trauma.

Q. How many of those bills are actually getting in front of congress and being discussed? What has been passed?

A. Nothing that I am aware of. The majority of these had to be reintroduced to the new congress.

1st District Representative - Tim Walz - Shawn Schoesser

*Not present.

2nd District Representative - Jason Lewis - Matthew Pagano

*Lewis supported HR 1367, which improves the authority of the secretary of the VA to hire and retain physicians. It received overwhelming bipartisan support and passed the House.

*He also supported HR 1181, the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act. It states that veterans must receive due process if their Second Amendment rights are going to be denied. It passed the House. 

*Lewis, along with the entire delegation, signed onto the National Guard Bureau concerning Minnesota Family Assistance Centers.  

Q. How are you planning to handle the claims backload?
A. I will bring it up with the congressman.

3rd District Representative - Erik Paulsen - Margret Cavanaugh

*Nothing to report.

4th District Representative - Betty McCollum - Connie Haddeland

*Our Service Academy information night will be on April 11th.

*Congresswoman is an original co-sponsor on HR 1384.

5th District Representative - Keith Ellison - Mike Siebenaler

*Not present.

6th District Representative - Tom Emmer - Abby Rime

*Emmer signed onto two letters in the past week to the secretary of the VA. One requested that the secretary disclose his plans to adequately staff the veteran's crisis line. The second was sent in response to the KARE-11 segment on veteran service on the BBA line.

*Emmer voted in favor of HR 1367 and HR 1181.

*He co-sponsored the Retired Pay Restoration Act that would allow veterans to receive both military and retired pay, as well as veteran's disability compensation regardless of their service-connected status.

*Emmer co-sponsored the Sgt. Brandon Ketchum Never Again Act, which would ensure a veteran who was entitled to psychiatric care can get that in a timely manner.

*He also supported the Reserve Components Parity Act.

*Our Service Academy information night will be in the last week of May. Currently we have three students who have already been accepted and are waiting on one more.

7th District Representative - Collin Peterson - Meg Louwagie

*Not present.

8th District Representative - Rick Nolan - Rick Olseen

*April 15 is Major-General Nash's meeting with the congressional staff, which we will be attending. The general is in support of protecting the families of service members.

*We are continuing to have problems with the Choice program.

2. State Agencies and MN Veteran Assistance Organizations

MN Department of Veteran Affairs - Commissioner Larry Shellito 2017 Legislative Info - Ben Johnson

*The legislative session is about halfway done and the house and senate have put together their Omnibus bills for various areas of interest. We are seeing Omnibus bills more often now than standalone legislation. We are especially concerned with the State government finance bills. The senate passed their version last week and the house version will be up for debate on April 6th. 

*Though our agency is looking for additional funding for Repair and Betterment, there has not been any bonding from the legislature. We have switched to ask for additional funds in our General Appropriations bill. That was not included in either the House or Senate versions of the state government finance bill. It was a request for $2 million to fix veterans homes and cemeteries. We also asked approximately $2.6 million for increased operating costs.

*Concerning the House version of the State Government Finance bill (HR 691), both versions include operations cost at base and both bodies included base funding for MDVA. The House did not include funding for operating costs at the new cemetery. This is not sustainable right now and we will need to divert funds from other programs in order to fund the cemeteries. We need support on this. Please ask your groups to support this measure and adopt the senate language on this bill.

*Funding for projects such as the Veterans Defense Project is also included, as well as Veterans Journey Home, which we support. The senate version of the bill takes funding for these initiatives out of the Support Our Troops fund rather than having the grants come through the competitive process and be vetted. The senate is directing us to use special revenue to pay for things they think cannot be paid for out of the general fund. We cannot support this. We don't oppose the projects themselves, but the process is a huge concern.

*In regards to the Bonding project, we need the agency. This is a budget year. The bonding bills have not come up yet. There are other concerns that must be addressed first. The bridge is currently the capstone project for the Minneapolis VA.

Q. A lot of people here have been working on legislature and we've seen some sincere bipartisan support for the bills. Then the budget targets were released and everything has changed across the board. There is support for veterans among legislators but when push comes to shove, if the money is not there when the bills come around, then that talk is meaningless.

A. I want to thank everyone who came to Veteran's Day on the Hill, it was a great turnout. It is a challenge to get funding, but we must continue campaigning to make these bills happen.

MN Military Affairs - Annette Kyper - Major Scott Ingalsbe

*A letter regarding the Family Assistance Center contracts issue was sent and we have 100% support on it.

*All 10 of our Congressional Delegation (CODEL) are signed on as co-sponsors to the Veterans Parity Act.

*The ribbon cutting for the Readiness Center in Stillwater will be on April 7th. The National Guard headquarters for the 343rd Air Battalion. General Nash will also be in attendance.

*We will have a dedication ceremony for the solar field project at Camp Ripley on April 13th in cooperation with Minnesota Power. Lt. Governor Smith will be speaking.

*This is the centennial year for the 34th Infantry Division.

*Due to the lapse in the Family Services contract, we have had to cancel our Joining Forces community conferences. We need these people to stay on board. We will be rescheduling for the fall and will get those dates out as soon as possible.

*Our Yellow Ribbon Company seminar at Blue Cross/Blue Shield was held in March. 85% of 54 companies attended. It was a great success.

*Minnesota is part of the Department of Defense's Building Healthy Communities Initiative. We are one of seven states that are part of the three-year grant. We have been given a state coordinator who will be starting work on April 10th. The initiative is encouraging each state to create a synchronization of effort in support of service members, veterans, and military families. They took the state with the most effective program (Minnesota) and the one that had the least (Mississippi) to help figure out the best way to synchronize efforts.

*May 6th will be the next Employment Mentor program working with a National Guard unit in Mankato. We partner with the Department of Economic and Employment Development and our Yellow Ribbon companies to match employment mentors per industry to service members and their spouses during drill weekend.

MN Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) - Bradley Legrid

*We will host a legal clinic at the Minneapolis VA on April 11th from 9 until 2 PM. There will be another in St. Cloud on April 18th from 10 to 3 PM at the St. Cloud VA.

*We will have a Stand Down event in Brainerd on April 25th at the armory. There will be another in Detroit Lakes on April 26th at the Becker County Fairgrounds.

*We are working with MDVA housing in the city of Minneapolis on landlord engagement. We are trying to come up with a "cheat sheet" that explains tools and tips for supporting homeless veterans, as well as resources available to both landlords and veterans.

Military Action Group (MAG) - Jerry Kyser

*We need your groups to be proactive in getting legislation passed.

*Currently it does not look like the DNR is going to go through with passing free hunting and fishing licenses for veterans.

*We were working on legislature to get businesses tax deductions if they hired a disabled or unemployed veteran, but I do not know where that legislation is at right now on the state-side. This is already in practice on the federal level.

*The other issue was exempting disabled veterans from the motor vehicle tax is also unknown at this point.

*Commissioner Shellito was awarded Ellis Island's Medal of Honor.

*The next MAG meeting will be April 17th at 9 AM at 400 North, State Office Bldg.

Project Got Your Back - Allison Alstrin

*Not present.

The Mission Continues - Lee Freeman

*The philosophy of The Mission Continues is to get veterans out volunteering in their communities in order to foster a sense of purpose and get them involved. Currently we have two core programs. One is the Fellowship Program, which is geared toward post-9/11 veterans if they served honorably and had at least 24 months cumulative time active duty, and have at least 20 hours a week for six months that they would like to volunteer at a nonprofit. If all these criteria are met, then the veteran is eligible for the Fellowship program. They are also connected with a Life Coach and given a monthly living stipend. The other program is the Service Platoon Concept, which began in 2013. This provides monthly events for veterans to get together and participate with. Currently we have 66 Service Platoons across the country.

Contact info: lfreeman@missioncontinues.org

3. Federal Agencies

VA Regional Office - Kim Graves - Pete Philippe

*We have been exempt from the hiring freeze in two specific positions: rating veteran services representatives and veteran service representatives. The regional office has grown by around 100 people since last September. Currently we have a ceiling of 368 people, which makes us one of the biggest divisions in the USA.

*There are several Special Missions being taken on in St. Paul. One of them is concerning a law that was changed to allow us to grant disability to reservists and other military personnel that were exposed to Agent Orange while serving on C123 aircraft. As of today we have processed 347 of those claims.

*On March 14th, a final law was passed adding to the provisions of 3.309, which are disabilities that are presumptive to veterans. This is related specifically to veterans who served in Camp Lejeune and were exposed to contaminated water. Initially all these claims were being adjudicated in Kentucky. Now they are being adjudicated across the country.

*We have a Restricted Access Claim Center, which means that all sensitive claims come through us. We have 68 people dedicated to that mission. Though this was difficult initially, we are making good progress and are pleased with the work we are doing.

Q. With all the claims that are done, you have a difficult job. What are you doing about potential scammers?

A. Our philosophy is to grant every benefit that we can and deny benefits when we must. Cases of fraud are rare, way less than a tenth of 1%.

VISN 23 - Janet Murphy - Director VISN 23 - Andre Kok

*We have undertaken an initiative called VA Reach Vet, which looks at existing health records and tries to identify veterans who are at risk for suicide from a data-analysis point of view.

*The 24th Annual Tee-Tournament will be held in Iowa City (www.tee.va.gov).

MPLS VA HCS - Director Patrick J. Kelly - Ralph Huessner - Brian Taylor 

*Introducing Brian Taylor.

St. Cloud VA HCS - Director Stephen D. Black - David Hintgen

*The hiring freeze continues, though there are exemptions for direct care personnel.

*The Deputy Undersecretary for Health and Care in the Community was in Minneapolis. He met with congressional delegates and vendors to discuss issues with the Choice program, as well as what the future of the program might look like. The current extension bill is working its way through congress. The proposal is that the choice program will continue as it is in its current form until the funding runs out. This is estimated to be a billion dollars to $1.3 billion remaining in the original 10 billion. This is likely to continue through August. The new program is expected to roll out around October 1st. It would reflect more of the Fargo model.

*Our Buffalo Town Hall was on March 8th. It was the largest Town Hall we have held to date.

Ft. Snelling Cemetery - John Knapp

*The cemetery is in good shape from the mild winter. We are preparing for Memorial Day, though we don't have a keynote speaker yet.

*There were 394 internments in March. Of those, 6 were female veterans. The breakdown is 71 for WWII, 59 for Korea, 77 for Vietnam, 5 for the Persian Gulf, 18 for peacetime, and 1 active duty. There were 163 dependents. The rifle squad did around 200 services for the month of March.

Vets Employment & Training Services [VETS] - Director Scott Mills - David Seay

*We attended the ESGR meeting this past weekend. We spoke about the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. It protects military members from discrimination, retaliation for pursuing a right under the act, or for improper reinstatement issues. Nationwide, ESGR mediated approximately 1800 cases. Our agency investigated approximately 1300. There were 27 investigations in Minnesota in 2015. There were approximately 30 cases in Minnesota in 2016.

*Concerning the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project, we are reviewing the projects and individuals that applied for grants. More information will be available in mid-May or early June.

Women Veteran's Initiative - Jill Trotner

*Not present.

MN Paralyzed Veterans of America - Todd Kemery

*Concerning the Vets on the Hill event: we were able to get seven wheelchairs and consider the event to be a success. We have been on the Hill before the event and will continue advocating for veterans there in the future.

*PVA was part of the roundtable discussion on the Choice program. We were impressed by the undersecretary and the enthusiasm we observed. We discussed the possibility of combining a number of community based veteran groups into one larger group. A new name needs to be picked instead of Choice 2.0. We were encouraged by the language that was used and the general meeting.

4. Announcements

In the future, we should push for a Veterans Omnibus bill.

5. Meeting in Recess for five minutes

Next meeting Wednesday 3 May, 2017 at 9:30 AM

Treasurer’s Report as of 1 April, 2017

Balance as of 1 March, 2017                                                  $4,501.25

Deposits for March, 2017                                                       $200.00

Expenses for March, 2017
            Transcription Expenses:          $120.00
                                                                                                ($134.70)                                                                                
Balance as of 1 April, 2017:                                                   $4581.25

Motion to pay MDVA for Rotunda use $170.00 passed.
Motion to pay webmaster for services $400.00 passed.

Submitted by Donald Rask, Treasurer UVLC