TAPS Policy and Legislative Priorities

The mission of TAPS is to offer comfort and support for surviving families of military loss regardless of the location or manner of their death. Part of that commitment includes advocating for improvements in programs and services provided by the Federal government through the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Education (DoED), Department of Labor (DOL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as State and local governments. TAPS also works to advance policy and legislation to strengthen the families of America’s fallen military heroes. 

 

TAPS Legislative Priorities for the Year:

 

Improve Healthcare and Benefits For Veterans Of Toxic Exposure, Their Families, Caregivers, And Survivors

According to the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans who served after 9/11 may have been exposed to a dozen different wide-ranging environmental and chemical hazards, some of which carry very real risks. Whether from burn pits, particulate matter, depleted uranium, or toxic fragments, they are getting sick and dying young from uncommon illnesses and early onset disease. 

TAPS interest in understanding illnesses that may result from toxic exposure stems from our desire to ensure surviving families have access to all available survivor benefits earned through the service of their loved one. The information that can be gathered from our survivor histories is also invaluable in establishing patterns and baselines that can be applied to the veteran community, save lives, and prevent this now and in the future. 

Since 2008, TAPS has been contacted by over 13,000 survivors whose military loved ones died due to an illness. Sadly, we project this number to increase by more than 2,300 each year based on current trends. 

In 2020, 29 percent of all military survivors connecting with TAPS experienced a loss due to illness. In 2021, TAPS believes that deaths due to illness will surpass all combat deaths, non-combat deaths, accidents, and suicides combined.

TAPS is a founding member of the Toxic Exposure in the American Military (TEAM) coalition, comprised of 30 military and veteran service organizations and experts. TEAM was instrumental in drafting landmark legislation, introduced during the 116th Congress, that reforms and improves how veterans exposed to toxic substances receive health care from the VA

TAPS applauds Congress for conducting oversight hearings on Toxic Exposure during the 116th Congress and including several important provisions in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA):

  • Grants access to Veteran’s Individual Longitudinal Exposure Records (ILER)

  • Adds three new Agent Orange diseases to VA list of presumptive service-connection

  • Mandates study on exposure to toxic substances at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base 

  • Requires study on cancer diagnosis and mortality among military aviators

TAPS will continue to work with Congress during the 117th Congress to:  

  • Pass the TEAM Act and introduce DoD toxic exposure legislation

  • Expand healthcare and benefits for veterans, caregivers, and survivors

  • Legislate critical funding for toxic exposure research and education

  • Build a public awareness campaign so we can save lives

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Increase Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)

Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is a tax-free monetary benefit paid to eligible survivors of military service members who died in the line of duty or eligible survivors of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease. 

TAPS thanks Congress for including a provision in the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 (H.R. 7105) to enable eligible surviving spouses to retain DIC upon remarriage at age 55, instead of the current age of 57. TAPS worked with Members of Congress to pass this important provision. 

We remain committed to advancing further improvements to DIC and providing equity with other federal benefits:

  • Increase DIC to bring it up to 55 percent of the rate of compensation paid to a 100 percent disabled veteran. TAPS has supported this increase for many years for those survivors whose only recompense is the DIC payment.

  • Reduce the timeframe a veteran needs to be rated totally disabled from 10 to 5 years, allowing more survivors to become eligible for DIC benefits. 

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Retain Survivor Benefits Upon Remarriage

Many surviving spouses choose not to remarry after the death of their service member because the loss of financial benefits would have a negative impact on them, especially those with children. To retain their benefits, many choose to cohabitate instead of legally remarrying. If a surviving spouse waits until age 55 to remarry, not only do they retain benefits, but they are no longer offset. Most first responders in the United States are also allowed to legally remarry in the U.S. and maintain pensions and benefits - including in New York, Los Angeles, and Louisiana. 

A long-term goal for TAPS is to secure the right for surviving spouses to remarry at any age and retain their benefits. Allowing surviving spouses to retain education benefits is a great starting point and will help create precedent. A surviving spouse’s ability to afford an education should not be impacted by the fact that they choose to remarry. They are still a surviving spouse of a fallen service member or veteran, who earned these benefits through service and sacrifice. 

TAPS requests Congress introduce legislation that addresses key remarriage issues for surviving spouses: 

  • Remove the arbitrary age 55 for surviving spouses to remarry and retain benefits.

  • Allow surviving spouses to maintain access to education benefits under the Fry Scholarship and Dependents Education Assistance (DEA) after remarriage.

  • Allow surviving spouses to retain Commissary and Exchange benefits after remarriage.

  • Allow surviving spouses to keep both the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) and Dependents Indemnity Compensation (DIC) after remarriage at any age.

  • Allow surviving spouses who remarry to regain their TRICARE benefits if that marriage subsequently ends due to divorce or death.  

In addition to losing financial benefits, ID cards and TRICARE for themselves, remarried surviving military spouses lose access to the TRICARE Beneficiary Self-Service Account that allows them to access referrals and check the status of referrals for their TRICARE-eligible children. Instead, referrals must be physically mailed, which often delays treatment. 

Remarried surviving spouses also no longer have access to Relay Health, which facilitates communication, prescription refills and appointments online. Minor children do not have their own accounts, they are under their parents’ account. If the parent is no longer in the system under TRICARE the remaining parent cannot access the electronic means for referrals, prescription refills and online appointments. 

  • Allow access to electronic medical appointments, referrals and prescription refills.

TAPS and our coalition partners will seek legislation to remove the “hold themselves out to be married” clause from 38 USC, Section 101, paragraph 3. We believe it unduly penalizes surviving spouses and may cause them to lose their survivor benefits. 

  • Remove the “Hold Themselves Out to Be Married” Clause.

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Define Gold Star Family

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not distinguish by cause of death. There is no differentiation of military headstones, the folding of the flag, the playing of Taps, or the distribution of government benefits based on the geography or circumstances of death for a service member, whether they died in combat, by accident, as a result of an illness, or by suicide. A service member's death is honored and remembered based on their life and service - not based on the geography or circumstance of the death.

TAPS is honored to be part of a collaborative of leading organizations caring for military survivors left behind, including Gold Star Wives, American Gold Star Mothers, Sons and Daughters in Touch, Gary Sinise Foundation, Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, and others. We all agree that how our loved ones died does not change the grief we feel as survivors.

TAPS will work with Congress to define Gold Star Family: 

  • Those who died while serving or from a service connected injury or illness.

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Strengthen the Death Gratuity

The longstanding purpose of the death gratuity has been to provide immediate cash payment to assist eligible survivors of deceased members of the Armed Forces to meet their financial needs and obligations during the period immediately following a service member's death when the paycheck stops and before other survivor benefits become available.

Eligible family members often incur substantial out-of-pocket funeral expenses. Also, the government can only reimburse a travel voucher and cannot authorize a travel advance. If the person who must incur those costs doesn’t get the death gratuity right away they may not be able to travel to the funeral, pay their rent or mortgage, or put food on the table for their family. 

TAPS will work with Congress to: 

  • Secure a minimum of 50% of the Death Gratuity for eligible surviving spouses. 

  • Change the name of the Death Gratuity to more accurately reflect the intended purpose of the payment and sensitivity towards newly bereaved survivors.

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Advance Suicide Prevention and Postvention Efforts

For more than a decade, TAPS has been on the front lines of suicide postvention efforts to support military families grieving deaths by suicide, as well as using lessons learned on the lookback to save countless lives through suicide prevention efforts. In addition to bereaved families, TAPS works alongside the military community and the veteran population, both of which have provided unique insights into suicide loss survivorship and the ways in which healing, hope, and growth are possible.

TAPS has supported more than 16,000 individuals whose military loved ones died by suicide. Twenty-nine percent of those coming to TAPS for care each day are grieving a death resulting from suicide and a life that included military service. 

The TAPS Suicide Prevention and Postvention team has developed a research-informed, best practice TAPS Postvention ModelTM for suicide loss survivors. This model decreases risk of additional suicides and promotes healing. TAPS is the leading organization formally working with families left behind after a suicide loss. 

TAPS conducts in-depth interviews with each survivor to reflect on their loved one’s life before suicide. One typical pattern identified among thousands of military suicide survivors is the need of the nation and the military community to prioritize mental health care as an essential element to overall wellness and readiness. The knowledge gained from these interviews guide policies, procedures, and protocols for future suicide prevention programs that save lives.

TAPS thanks Congress for passing the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. In 2021, TAPS will continue to work with Congress to:

  • Advance collaborative Suicide Prevention and Postvention efforts.

  • Prioritize mental health care as an essential element to overall wellness and readiness. 

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Ensure Benefits for Veterans Who Die of Covid-19 With Underlying, Service-Connected Disabilities

Veterans who pass away from the coronavirus may have their cause of death labeled as “COVID-19” without accounting for service-related disabilities that further complicate their diagnosis. We are grateful to Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) for introducing the Ensuring Survivors Benefits during COVID-19 Act of 2020, which ensures those disabilities are taken into account, so family members have access to the survivor benefits they are eligible to receive. 

TAPS is working with Congress to reintroduce this important legislation in the 117th and to have it included in a COVID Relief Package: 

  • Ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) grants benefits to survivors of veterans who die of COVID-19 with an underlying, service-connected health issue that may have contributed to their death by COVID-19.

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Ensure Fry Eligibility for Families of Those Who Die In The 120 Day Release From Active Duty (Refrad) Period

If a veteran dies from a service-connected injury or illness within 120 day Release from Active Duty (REFRAD) they are considered to have died on Active Duty for all benefits, except the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship. These benefits include Survivors Group Life Insurance (SGLI), Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), Survivors Benefits Plan (SBP), Death Gratuity, TRICARE for Life, MWR privileges, and burial benefits. 

The only difference is in education benefits where these families are eligible for Chapter 35 instead of the Fry Scholarship. A long-term goal for TAPS is to sunset Chapter 35 and move all survivors into Chapter 33. Granting access to these families is the logical next step. In some cases, the service member had only been released for a matter of hours or days from active duty at the time of their death. 

  • TAPS requests that Congress pass legislation to expand eligibility for those who die in the 120 day REFRAD period to the Fry Scholarship. 

  • TAPS long-term goal is to bring all survivors into the Fry Scholarship and phase out the Vietnam Era Dependents Education Assistance (Chapter 35).

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Guarantee In-State Tuition for Chapter 35 Recipients

Chapter 35 is an outdated education benefit provided by the VA. The Forever GI Bill increased education benefits by $200 per month, however, that remains nearly half of the amount paid by the Montgomery GI Bill, and far less than the Post 9/11 GI Bill and Fry Scholarship. 

TAPS recommends sunsetting Chapter 35 and moving all qualified recipients to Chapter 33, even if it is on a lower scale such as 70% as opposed to 100% of the benefit. TAPS also supports guaranteed in-state tuition for those receiving Chapter 35. This will be a low cost lift that will drastically improve the education options for surviving families and reduce student loan debt. 

Any survivor using the Fry Scholarship, any dependent using transferred entitlement, and any veteran using the Post 9/11 GI Bill is currently eligible for in-state tuition at any state school in the country. Survivors using Dependents Education Assistance (DEA) under Chapter 35 are excluded. 

Benefits under DEA are significantly lower than the Post 9/11 GI Bill, Fry Scholarship, and Montgomery GI Bill. Those using DEA are limited to dependents of a 100% disabled veteran or those who died of a service-connected death. Guaranteeing all survivors in-state tuition would help ensure benefits go further and will not limit a student’s school choice.  

  • TAPS requests Congress pass legislation to guarantee in-state tuition for those using DEA.

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Standardize And Make Permanent the Iraq And Afghanistan Service Grant

The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant is a version of the Pell Grant administered by the Department of Education for surviving children above the income requirements for Pell. The program is set to expire and needs to be renewed and made permanent to continue to guarantee that surviving children have access to this assistance. 

  • TAPS requests Congress reauthorize and make permanent the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant. 

  • Expand eligibility to all children whose loved one died on active duty post 9/11 or from a service-connected death using DoD and VA language to clarify eligibility.

  • TAPS requests Congress pass the Protecting Gold Star Families Education Act.

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Advance Student Protections for Surviving Families

With the enhanced benefits from the Forever GI Bill, there continues to be an increase in predatory practices by for-profit schools. Ensuring students have access to a high-quality education, and that benefits are being used at Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) that will lead to gainful employment and long-term success is a high priority for TAPS and our partner organizations.  

While less than 25% of GI Bill users attend for-profit schools, close to 50% of GI Bill funds go to for-profit schools, even though they do not always have the best outcomes or graduation rates.

  • Protect the integrity of Department of Education (DoEd) programs such as Borrower Defense and Gainful Employment as quality controls for IHLs. These programs ensure that defrauded students are granted loan forgiveness and that students who attend IHLs become employed in the field of study post-graduation.

  • Closing the 90/10 loophole will help remove the target from the backs of veterans and survivors. The loophole allows schools to receive 100% of income from the federal government by getting 90% from the DoEd and the remaining balance by enrolling large amounts of veterans and survivors eligible for GI Bill benefits and Tuition Assistance (TA). Closing the loophole is another quality control that will guarantee benefits are being used at IHLs with high standards and provides long term positive outcomes for students.

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a major recruiting tool for both the DoD and VA. Both agencies came out against cutting it in 2017 when it was on the chopping block for the Higher Education Authorization (HEA) in 2017 and 2018. Since PSLF is frequently used by surviving family members, TAPS will monitor and push back on any attempted cuts to this important program.

  • TAPS requests Congress pass the PROTECT VETS Act.

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Authorize Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) Open Enrollment Period

The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) was established on September 21, 1972 to replace the Retired Serviceman’s Family Protection Plan. Since SBP’s enactment, there have been a total of six Open Enrollment Periods. 

When the Social Security offset to SBP was eliminated in the Fiscal Year 2005 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress provided for a one-year open enrollment for those who opted out of the SBP. Since 1980, there have been a total of six Open Enrollment Periods each occurring after a change to SBP.

TAPS is extremely grateful that Congress finally eliminated the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) offset to the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), and that it became law on December 20, 2019. TAPS was instrumental in working with Congress, organization partners, and survivors to end the “Widow’s Tax”. We are gratified that the SBP/DIC Offset will be phased out over the next three years beginning in January 2021. In keeping with precedent:

  • TAPS asks Congress to authorize an Open Enrollment Period once again.

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Protect And Preserve Commissary and Exchange Benefits

Commissary and Exchange benefits provide a vital non-pay compensation benefit to service members, retirees, their families and survivors. The military community consistently rank them as a top compensation benefit, yielding returns to military families and the Department of Defense that far outweigh taxpayer support. Moreover, service members and their families are partners with taxpayers, having financed billions of dollars in commissary and exchange facilities, and quality of life programs.  

Military families rely on these valuable earned benefits to stretch their household budgets and provide healthy food for their families. Any changes that diminish the savings commissaries provide will also reduce traffic at exchange operations and damage their ability to finance essential military community support programs. Commissary and Exchanges also provide critical jobs for military families and veterans – over 60 percent of employees are military connected and nearly 30 percent are military families.

During this unprecedented year of COVID-19, the Commissary and Exchanges played a vital role in protecting the health and safety of our military community, while continuing to provide critical employment for military families and veterans.  

Commissary and Exchange benefits have been under tremendous pressure over the years. There are a number of changes to these benefits that have been made and are being considered that have a profound effect on the well-being of patrons of these programs. TAPS appreciates Congress recognizing the importance of Commissary and Exchange benefits and including a Comptroller General report on the impact of reforms in the defense commissary system within the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). 

TAPS continues to urge Congress to:

  • Preserve the Commissary benefit as part of the overall pay and compensation package, including high quality products, maintained savings, access, and customer satisfaction.
  • Maintain appropriations for the Exchanges with proper support and distribution of Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) dividends.
  • Ensure Commissary transformation and any potential consolidation of back office functions of the Commissary and Exchange systems does not degrade the benefit.

  • >Provide Congressional oversight of all changes impacting Military Resale to preserve quality, savings, and access for patrons; and sufficient MWR dividends to ensure access to quality of life and support programs.

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