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1. Hagel promises ‘honest, direct’ approach as new defense secretary. In his first morning on the job, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told assembled troops and Defense Department civilians he’d live up to his reputation as a straight talker as the Pentagon confronts numerous challenges.
2. Lawmakers introduce bill to demote Pentagon’s new medal. Lawmakers are lashing out at the Pentagon’s creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal – intended to honor the contributions of drone pilots and cyber warriors who haven’t set foot on the battlefield – by introducing legislation that would ban it from being rated on par with or above the Purple Heart.
3. For-profits offer new guidelines for student veterans. A coalition of for-profit colleges unveiled new guidelines for military-friendly schools on Tuesday, a move that officials hope will improve their interactions with veterans and their reputation among critics of the industry.
4. As sequester nears, immigration detainees are released. The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it had released hundreds of illegal immigrants held in detention facilities, saying it could no longer afford to house them because of across-the-board cuts that are set to start taking effect Friday.
5. Obama administration chooses cuts to make its case. Days before the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman was due to leave Norfolk for the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon canceled the deployment, pleading poverty. But on the same day defense cuts are to begin, due to the sequester, the littoral combat ship Freedom, will set sail for Singapore.
6. New VA Clinics, Expansions Left In Limbo As Congress Struggles With Up-Front Costs. AP A “huge jump in the…price tag” of a “dozen new or expanded” Veterans Affairs health clinics around the country “left lawmakers scrambling, and in the face of the budget-cutting climate on Capitol Hill,” a VA request for funding of the facilities stalled. Now, the “agency is warning that unless lawmakers act, some currently operating clinics may have to close after their old leases expire and other long-planned expansions will not go forward.” The piece notes, “The Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement that failure to move ahead with the leases would hurt access to health care with increased travel and wait times for veterans. Veterans groups are starting to voice alarm as well.”
7. Lawmakers Push To Fund VA One Year In Advance. Military Times “Each year, Congress funds the Veterans Affairs Department’s health care budget at the start of the fiscal year to ensure the government has money to cover eligible veterans’ medical care costs for the entire year. On Monday, two House lawmakers moved to fund all of VA’s discretionary budget a year ahead, saying the change would protect VA during periods of fiscal uncertainty.”
8. VA Protected From Sequester Cuts, But Veterans Will Feel The Pain. Stars And Stripes “The Department of Veterans Affairs will be spared when sequestration hits March 1. But veterans will not.” The piece continues, “Despite assurances that veterans benefits and services will be exempt from the budget cuts, veterans and their families will share the suffering along with military counterparts. The result could mean more homeless veterans, less help for those looking for work, and tens of thousands of furloughed veteran struggling to make ends meet.” Notably, “VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has warned on several occasions that everyone in America will feel the effects of sequestration, including veterans.”
9. Bill Would Include Full Appropriations For VA. The Hill “House Republicans plan to meet on Wednesday for the second day in a row to discuss budget matters, including sequestration and legislation to extend federal government spending through the end of the year once the current appropriation expires on March 27. The bill assumes the spending cuts in sequestration take effect this year and would include full appropriations for the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. It could be on the House floor next week, a GOP aide said.”
10. Electronic Records Key To Cutting VA Backlog. Military Times “The ability of the Veterans Affairs Department to reduce its expanding backlog of benefits claims rests with electronic records, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Tuesday. In an address to the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans’ group, Shinseki repeated the Obama administration’s goal of eliminating the benefits claims backlog in 2015.” He remarked, “We intend to process claims in less than 125 days at 98 percent accuracy, and to end the backlog in claims that has built up over decades.” Meanwhile, “Shinseki said a good deal of the claims process hinges on things outside of VA’s control. ‘If it takes 265 days to process a disability claim, 200 of those days are usually spent awaiting information from the IRS, DoD, the Social Security Administration’ or veterans themselves, he said.” Stars And Stripes “VA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged Tuesday that his department will make progress toward ending the benefits backlog this year,” but “after Shinseki’s remarks, House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Florida, said the VA needs clearer plans to eliminate the backlog, and that ‘merely stating overly optimistic projections doesn’t help