Author: Heather Worley

I am a wife, mother, Veteran, and caregiver to my Veteran husband. Life is busy between all of that and church service too... but who likes to bored all of the time anyway???

Service-Connected Veteran Disability Pay Increase

H.R. 1329, also known as: “Veteran’s Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2017” finally enacts what you would expect would happen… Veterans with service-connected disability will see an increase in their compensation payments for the purpose of offsetting inflation.  You can think of inflation as simply what happens when you blink and your regular $3.00 gallon of milk is suddenly $3.06. Six cents may not seem like a lot but when you consider the amount of goods purchased by each household, it will certainly add up over time. Your grandma wasn’t kidding when she said a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.

Nevertheless, this newly-enacted law requires that VA disability compensation increase by the same percentage each year as the Social Security old age and disability compensation increases. This rate increase not only affects the basic service-connected compensation, but also benefits for clothing allowance (if a Veteran’s prosthesis/medical device causes unusual wear and tear of clothing), and benefits for surviving spouses and children.  For 2018, the increase is 2% which is literally $2 for every $100 in compensation. Again, that may not seem like much but after hearing, reading, and witnessing the struggle of many Veterans and their surviving spouses and children, I can’t help but rejoice in those extra few dollars each month.

It is important to note that the rate of increase will not be the same each year. The 2% increase for this coming year is the highest in five years but also a far cry from the 14.3% cost-of-living adjustment in 1980. The Congressional Budget Office submitted their report on the cost of this bill in May 2017. Their estimate included a 2.5% increase, so adjusting for the lesser, actual increase, the cost of this bill will approximately in $1.44 billion in 2018. Inflation sucks (most of the time).

Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017 (H.R. 931)

It’s no surprise that some professions come with a higher rate of cancer diagnoses than others and registries are becoming a common way to study this issue. While registries like the Veterans Affairs’ “Burn Pit Registry” seeks to document an occurrence of an occupational hazard, there is no question that our nation’s firefighters are frequently exposed to smoke, chemicals, and other fire-related hazards. This bill will set up a registry to collect, compile, and analyze the actual rate of cancer among firefighters. There are state registries already, but just like we learn in high school statistics class, the larger the pool of information, the more accurate your analysis will be.

The owner of this registry, so-to-speak, will be the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS Secretary) but will be carried out with the help of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). This registry will be used to make and improve current actions which study cancer diagnoses in firefighters. The information will be collected, put into a more simple format for study, stored, and then released as public information… don’t worry though, all personal identifying information will be removed before public release. This is pretty standard and a no-brainer.

The bill suggests things that should be reported in the registry, such as:

  1. Some sort of identifying information (this helps keep information consolidated and avoid duplicate entries)
  2. Age of firefighter
  3. Position (volunteer, paid-on-call, or career)
  4. Number of years on the job and all other job information prior to, during, or after service
  5. The number of fires attended (or an estimate if not available) and the type of building (residential vs commercial)
  6. Other risk factors to include smoking or other drug use
  7. Physical exam and medical history that is related to the cancer diagnosis

Because this is a national registry, it will be given the ability to link to State registries in order to get information like the date of the diagnosis, source of that information, and details on the type and stage of cancer.

The HHS Secretary is directed to create a plan to “maximize participation” from all demographics of firefighters. Who knows what plan that could be. I get mail every few months to remind me to continue my participation in a Veteran-related study. It usually includes some sort of trinket and a thank you note. The plan should also state a minimum target for participation as being included in the registry will be voluntary. After all, what good is a study if only 5% of the people eligible actually participate? A formula should be created to standardize estimations of how many fires were attended if exact numbers aren’t available. The Secretary is also directed to seek feedback from non-Federal experts (like cancer doctors, public health experts, actual firefighters, etc) on how the information should be used and how the registry can be improved. Finally, the information will be required to be made public in a format that does not include personal identifying information and with no cost to anyone who wishes to view it.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that this will cost about $10 million to create and maintain between fiscal years 2018 – 2022. This bill gives the registry $2.5 million each fiscal year for a total of $12.5 million by the end of 2022. It passed in the House of Representatives by a voice vote on September 12, 2017 and will be sent to the Senate for approval.

The Four Types of Legislation

Legislation is not only comprised of lengthy, confusing language, it is graced with titles and official classifications that can be just as confusing. There is rhyme and reason on the abbreviations and numbers to legislation, however. It actually gives the designation of the type and numerical order of introduction to a chamber of Congress.

The first type of legislation is the one that we most often think of, the bill. I bet that as soon as you read that, you got at least a flash of the Schoolhouse Rock video about Bill on Capitol Hill. Ahh, nostalgia. Perhaps that video is why we really only think of bills but it could also be because they have a wide variety of uses. They can create new laws, amend an existing one, or even nix one that is already on the books. Bills can be introduced in either house of Congress but must be passed by both in order to move on to be signed (hopefully) by the President. Bills can also be public or private. Public bills apply to everyone in the United States. Private bills only pertain to a group, person, or business. Bills are denoted by an “H.R.”  or an “S.” before the number.

Bill Title

The next three types of proposed legislation are resolutions but they are obviously all a little different. I pretty much have a hate relationship with most resolutions, but that is another post entirely.

First, you have the “Simple Resolution.” It is denoted as in the picture above but the abbreviations are “H. Res.” or “S. Res.” They essentially just express an opinion or sentiment of the House of Representatives or the Senate. The other chamber does not have to approve the simple resolution.

On the rare occasion that both chambers of Congress agree on an opinion, we will see the “Concurrent Resolution” which carries “H. Con. Res.” or “S. Con. Res” before the number.

Finally, the fourth type of legislation is a “Joint Resolution” and is denoted by “H. J. Res.” or “S. J. Res” depending on which chamber introduced the resolution. This type of resolution is similar to a bill because it will be passed by both chambers and signed into law by the President. The only exception is when it is used to propose a constitutional amendment and then each chamber must pass it with at least a two-thirds vote with no need to be signed by the President. Joint resolutions can also be used to allocate money for specific types of spending, appoint persons to certain positions, or even to disapprove rules that have been submitted by government agencies.

Knowing the differences between the four types of legislation may not seem important, but it is for anyone who wishes to understand what is being attempted and accomplished in Congress. On a side note, I mainly refer to Congress.gov for research on current legislative activity and I encourage you to browse the site as well if you find the time.

S. 544 : Changing the Veteran’s Choice Program

The Veteran’s Choice Program is not without its flaws. News agencies far and wide have reported on inefficiency, ridiculous eligibility criteria, and general messiness. Perhaps some would be glad to see it expire in August 2017 as scheduled, but considering that wait times and care services are still not where they should be across the board, we may be better off hoping that President Trump signs this bill into law. Instead of expiring three years after enactment of the original bill, the Veteran’s Choice Program will continue as long as there is money in the fund. Initially, 10 billion was allocated, but President Trump’s proposed budget would add 3.5 billion for the program. Given this fact and the president’s promises to take care of Veteran’s, it would be unlikely that he would veto this bill.

In addition to changing the termination date of the Choice Program, this bill, which amends the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, will also allow for the Choice Program to recoup money from third parties (insurance companies) for provided medical care that is not service-connected. This will clearly help extend the budget of the program and ensure that the appropriate parties pay for care.

VA medical records will also be able to be send to outside agencies for the purpose of providing medical care. Any other use of the records will be prohibited. If you have ever tried to get records sent from one government agency to another, especially the VA, you know what a pain it can be!

These changes may not seem like much but they are certainly a step in the right direction. For some, the Choice Program works, for others, it does not. Each improvement provides more Veterans with the care that they need.

Senators Get Paid To Throw A Tantrum

In my daughter’s six years on this earth, she has thrown exactly two tantrums that I would consider EPIC. Strangely enough, they both occurred at the same restaurant as we were leaving. The first included a lot of screaming and the second including less screaming but a complete refusal to sit in her car seat so I could buckle her in. She arched her little body outward and it was tense like a rock! Fearing that I would hurt her if I forced her down, my husband and I were held hostage in the car for 45 mins while she screamed about the unfairness of a toddler’s life. It was loud, it was frustrating, and we just wanted to go home. It was that day that I declared a war on tantrums.

That war now extends beyond the reach of my family, I am talking about the tantrums thrown by United States Senators: grown men and women who give speeches so long that it makes me wonder if they wear adult diapers. Seriously, who talks for a dozen or more hours without a bathroom break!?! The purpose isn’t really even to convince other Senators to feel one way or the other about what is being voted on. The purpose is to keep the vote from happening. Do you see the similarity there? A toddler is just as capable of filibustering as a grown politician. My Mini had no other purpose in her tantrum than to keep us from leaving. She gained nothing unless she could outlast us. Thankfully, toddlers sleep more than politicians. One Senator’s filibuster can last up to 30 hours if they can last that long.

Is this what we want our elected officials doing? Do we want them to be sharing recipes, reading Shakespeare, singing, and rambling just because they want their way? Sure, there can be another vote to the end the filibuster, but that vote can be filibustered too. If our Senators cared about the American Taxpayer, then they wouldn’t spend time yammering on (or threatening it) just to see if they can get other people to leave and avoid a vote. Sometimes these Senate tantrums work and sometimes they don’t, but from this mom’s point of view, they are always a waste. Please locate your Senator’s contact information and let them know that you don’t get paid for speaking off-topic for hours on end and neither do they. Republican, Democrat, Independent, whatever you are, you deserve more respect from the people on Capitol Hill.

What Is Your Computer Saying About You?

Clearly our computers and phones don’t speak (well, unless you count Siri, Cortana, and the like) but they do say an awful lot about us when we don’t even realize it. Have you ever gone through your browser history and deleted it because you didn’t want anyone to know what you were looking for? I have and I would be willing to bet you are in the same boat. I’m not saying anything immoral or criminal is going on but we don’t want others to accidentally see that we search for baby-making tips or a questionable rash when and if they borrow any of our devices.

The truth is, no matter how many times we delete our history, we have left digital footprints that we can’t erase. Cable and internet providers track what we do, even if the websites are encrypted. Granted, they see less when it’s encrypted, but it leaves a faint print anyway. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s helpful for law enforcement and service companies learn more about us which can, over time, help them tailor programming and services to our needs and likes. This can even help discover when someone has hacked into your service! A couple of months ago, my mother-in-law received a warning phone call from her internet provider that someone had illegally downloaded Dolly Parton’s song, 9 to 5. The irony of someone stealing a song about working your butt off is not lost on me. The important part was that she was able to explain that not only does she not have a desktop computer (and especially not the one with the IP address they had recorded) but this let her, and the company, know that she needed to change her passwords because someone was stealing the service she was paying for. Being a law-abiding citizen, this concerned my mother-in-law as to whether or not she would get in further trouble but I am happy to report that she, and Dolly Parton, have not been violated on her internet connection since!

But wait though… if the internet company can see all of that, is it a violation of my mother-in-law’s rights? We are in the information/digital/media/internet age, after all. Most of us are pretty aware that our internet use can be tracked, if for no other reason than you can’t even look for a warehouse-sized container of toilet paper on Amazon without suddenly seeing rolls of white, bears wiping their butts, and women knitting TP all over your screen. We can’t really call our internet use “intellectual property” although I tried REALLY hard to rationalize it so we could say it was protected by law. It could be argued that internet service providers (ISPs) have a right to see how their service is being used. If you loaned something to a neighbor, you would want to know where they were going with it and when they will give it back. The same is true for these companies.

That being said, is it okay for companies to sell the information of our hard internet-surfing work? It is a by-product of our own time and can say a lot about us; everything from political opinions to financial information can be gathered. The House and Senate have passed a bill that will revoke a rule passed in the last few months of the Obama administrations which prohibits service providers from selling the information they collect from you. This does NOT apply to Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Bing, etc. Let’s acknowledge that if they can sell our information, it is unfair to keep the service providers from doing it. The rule which will no longer be in effect wasn’t even in effect yet, so I suppose you could say we haven’t gained or lost anything.

I get that we don’t want our information to be used for monetary gain or criminal purposes. ID theft seems just as inevitable as death and taxes these days and we don’t want to make that easier either. Nevertheless, we need to seriously consider how much we are willing to fight for this one small area of information, when much more personal information is being bought and sold. I am much more concerned about my medical information being sold than I am about my internet traffic between Facebook and Congress.gov. (Seriously, my browsing history is uber boring.) When sold, all of this personal data is separated from your personal identifying information. I have had my medical and pay information compromised via government-controlled systems several times since becoming an adult but never have I been notified that any information that had been sold could be tracked back to me and used to steal my identity.

If the concern is that money is being made from our online searching, it might be more profitable to turn that frustration into a movement to reduce the insane prices we pay for these services. I don’t think there is a such thing as a manure farm… but it sure happens a lot and it gets sold too. The manure is just a by-product, but it commands a price and I’m pretty sure farmers who like to sell it are going to be fairly angry if you come and take it. If you are an internet farmer… demand that when they sell info on the crap we search, a reverse fee be paid back to us! It will certainly help offset the fees on the bill that make no sense.

Trump: Environmental Evil-Doer or Regulatory Foe?

“Let’s destroy the earth with pollution!” … Said no respectable (or non-cartoon) person ever. Even still, President Trump has managed to send that message to his political rivals. Okay, to be fair, they pulled that message to the extreme, willingly, of course. Either way, here we are, beginning the debate (again) on whether or not we are destroying the earth in favor of the almighty dollar.

President Trump’s latest executive order (today, March 28, 2017) starts off with language that most of us agree on:

“It is further in the national interest to ensure that the Nation’s electricity is affordable, reliable, safe, secure, and clean, and that it can be produced from coal, natural gas, nuclear material, flowing water, and other domestic sources, including renewable sources. “

The President goes on to ask for a review, change, and revocation of regulations and procedures that are not required by law and that can get in the way of otherwise safe processing of energy sources. Still not bad really… the average household (yours included) has to update things every once in a while which might mean getting rid of a few rules. Theeeeeeeen, he begins to cite all of these executive orders from President Obama reports on guidance for energy emissions that will no longer be in effect. It sounded like bad juju to me too! However, a short review of the Obama actions reveals that nothing to terrible is being changed just yet.

The first Obama executive order to be nixed has some wonderful language about modernizing infrastructure and recommending that government agencies take steps to lessen the risk that they will contribute to climate change. Data.gov was established by this order and seems like a neat tool for the rest of us who aren’t waist-deep in this sort of stuff everyday. Sadly, information updates to the site under many topics seems to have stopped. The “climate” section hasn’t had a new entry since 2015. So I guess we won’t miss this one too much! There are a couple of councils that were created regarding climate change, but one that was ordered six months ago has apparently missed some suspense dates and I can’t even tell if this council (Climate and National Security Working Group) is staffed. You can’t miss what isn’t there! Trump has ordered that the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases be disbanded as well. Here’s my question… why were there so many councils on the same topic? I’m all about preserving our environment but as they say, too many hands in the pot will spoil the sauce. Anyone in the military will tell you about having meetings about meetings. LOL. It’s real. It has happened… and it feels like the same thing here. Because he disbanded the Greenhouse Gas group, he is tossing out their work as well. Ready for another saying from your grandma? He might just be tossing the baby out with the bath water. These types of reports are incredibly detailed and are written for specialists and experts in their field. I’m pretty much lost in the sauce (spoiled or not) when I read them. Nevertheless, the old standards and guidance of social cost of emissions from 2003 will go back into effect. Finally, he orders an end to the ban on leasing government land for the purpose of coal mining.

I’m still holding my breath on where this will go. It will depend largely on the agency administrators who are tasked with trimming down the regulation in their area. As for me, I will continue to do what I can: recycle, conserve gas, and pray my family remembers to turn off lights when they aren’t needed!

P.S. If you remember the cartoon Captain Planet and the Planeteers from the 90s… I wouldn’t tell the Captain about this… he’s gonna be pretty peeved. And now you have the theme stuck in your head just like me. You’re welcome. 😉