Category Archives: Your benefits

An Advocate is Born: Affecting change for military families

Susan-Reynolds-and-son

We have all heard the phrase from William Shakespeare, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

A few years ago I was content with my starring role in the production of “Susan’s Military Life”. An active volunteer, educator, mentor, and friend were my starring roles. That changed when my infant son was denied healthcare coverage for a cranial reshaping helmet. I was offered a different role – the role of a lifetime – and I couldn’t pass it up.

The National Military Family Association and I were introduced in October 2011 when I was asked to be a volunteer. From there I discovered a world of advocacy that I never knew existed. The Association was working on issues ranging from education to healthcare. I fell in love and knew I was ‘home’.

In July 2012, I was invited to a conference in Washington, D.C. to tell my son’s story. In two days I had eight meetings on Capitol Hill and my performance had to be flawless. Fortunately, I had great support from the Association’s Government Relations department, as well as Kara Oakley from the Children’s Hospital Association.

The National Military Association encouraged me to use my voice to advocate for my son and all military children. I learned not to be afraid to share my story because I had a gift for speaking. You see, according to the Association, my story and my voice is powerful and should not be forgotten.

A year has passed since those meetings, and so many doors have opened because I’m a volunteer with National Military Family Association. The Association has helped me define my story and because of their support, I’m a stronger, more confident volunteer and advocate for military families.

As the saying goes, “a star is born every second.” In my case, an advocate was born and is supported by the National Military Family Association.

Susan ReynoldsBy Susan Reynolds, National Military Family Association Volunteer

FAQ Series: Military commissary questions

Grocery-Store-Shopper

You have questions, we have answers. This week we respond to your frequently asked questions about the commissary benefit.

Q: If commissary goods are sold at cost, why do I see an additional “surcharge” on my receipt?

A: Commissary shoppers buy goods “at cost” meaning the commissary does not generate a profit from sales. Shoppers pay a 5% surcharge. The surcharge is calculated on the total before coupons are deducted. The surcharge goes back into the stores to pay for new construction, renovations, repairs, and equipment. The surcharge does not decrease commissary savings because it is included in the savings calculations.

Q: How much should I tip the commissary baggers?

A: Baggers are not commissary or government employees and are paid solely by the tips they receive from commissary shoppers in exchange for bagging/carryout services. Baggers are self-employed, and work under a license agreement with an installation commander. The amount you tip is up to you. Some folks suggest twenty-five cents a bag; others tip a flat rate between $5 – $10.

Q: I am deploying and my children will stay with someone who does not have a military ID. Can the caregiver shop at the commissary for our children?

A: The caregiver will need an agent letter to shop at the commissary for the children. The caregiver does not have to be an authorized commissary shopper; however only the installation commander can authorize agent privileges. It is recommended that you contact the commissary store director near the caregiver’s location and request contact information for the installation office that prepares agent authorization. It may be helpful to ask what documentation an agent needs to gain access to the installation. You can find a list of commissaries here.

Q: Do I really save more money by shopping at the commissary?

A: Shoppers save an average of more than 30 percent on their purchases compared to commercial prices – savings that amount to thousands of dollars annually when shopping regularly at a commissary. In addition to lower costs on products, the commissary also accepts coupons and uses a rewards card program to help increase your savings. While savings may vary from location to location, it’s important to remember that profits made by commissaries contribute to family readiness and enhance the quality of life for service member’s and their families. Those profits also cover the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones.

What interesting information have you learned about the Commissary? Share it in a comment!

Send your questions or comments to PR@militaryfamily.org and don’t forget to follow our blog, Branching Out, for our next FAQ series.

Source: http://www.commissaries.com/documents/contact_deca/faq.cfm

KatieBy Katie Savant, Government Relations Information Manager

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Military Student Loan Forgiveness: What to do with your student loans?

Soldier-StudentMilitary families may rely on a variety of financial aid packages to help afford a higher education; including scholarships, grants, and loans. If your service member has federal loans, he or she will want explore the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.

The PSLF is a program for federal student loan borrowers who work in a range of public service jobs, including military service. The program forgives remaining debt after 10 years of eligible employment and qualifying loan payments.  In most cases eligibility is based on whether you work for an eligible employer. Your job is eligible if you:

• are employed by any nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3)organization
• are employed by the federal government, a state government, local government, or tribal government (this includes the military and public schools and colleges); or
• serve in a full-time AmeriCorps or Peace Corps position.

PSLF applies to federal Stafford, Grad Plus, or consolidation loans as long as they are in the Direct Loan Program.  Borrowers with Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) loans must switch to the Direct Loan program to participate in this benefit.

In order to qualify for loan forgiveness the borrower must make 10 years (or 120 monthly payments) after October 1, 2007. Qualifying payments are made through the Direct Loan program. To count, the payments must be made while working full-time in an eligible job. “Full-time” means 30 hours per week or the standard for full-time used by the employer, whichever is greater. If your service member meets all of the eligibility criteria the earliest the remaining debt could be forgiven under the program is October 2017.

With advanced planning, the PSLF is another tool your family can use to help make higher education affordable. Since federal student loan interest rates reset each July , now is a good time to explore the PSLF program to see if it is right for you and your family.

KatieBy Katie Savant, Government Relations Information Manager

Turning 65: Another milestone known as Medicare

Turning 65: Another milestone known as MedicareRecently, I began the rite of passage for another milestone in my life: turning 65. (And thank you to all those muttering under your breath, “I didn’t think she was THAT old!”) Armed with advice from my high school classmates via our reunion Facebook page and our Association’s website, I sat down at my computer to enroll in Medicare.

I was surprised by how easy it was to enroll online. My application was approved by the end of the week (which I could check online by using my confirmation number) and my Medicare card arrived in the mail a week later. Along the way, I learned a thing or two:

  • Somehow the whole world has received notice that you are soon turning 65. Every insurance company you’ve heard of and those you haven’t will start sending you information and calling you about Medicare supplemental insurance plans. Military retirees, their spouses, and survivors shouldn’t need those policies because they qualify for Tricare for Life, which picks up the cost shares not paid by Medicare. But, remember—to be eligible for TRICARE for Life, you MUST sign up for Medicare Part B!
  • You want to sign up for Medicare before you turn 65. If you wait until afterwards, not only will you turn 65 anyway (it’s inevitable), but you may also need to pay a penalty. I signed up in May before my August birthday.
  • You will start using Medicare at the beginning of your birth month. So even though you are not yet technically 65, Medicare thinks you are for part of the month.
  • You will need to get a new military ID card. My ID card was expiring in June so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone. I took my new red, white, and blue Medicare card with me in June to renew my military ID card. But all they did at the ID card facility was laminate my Medicare card and renew my “old” military ID card. I have to go back in August when I’m officially on Medicare. Then I’ll get a military ID card that doesn’t expire (and hopefully has a better picture).
  • You will need to update DEERS too.
  • It took me a while to discover how I was supposed to pay for my new Medicare Part B. (You don’t pay a premium for Part A.) If you’re already receiving Social Security, they deduct it from your paycheck. Otherwise, they send you a bill.

So now I’m waiting for August. 65!!! Yikes!

What milestone have you recently experienced in your journey as a military spouse? What advice do you have to share?

Susan-EversBy Susan Evers, Volunteer Services Coordinator, West Region

Military Advance Pay – It’s not a Payday loan

Money in JarA little known provision of military pay is called “advance pay.” Advance pay is neither an entitlement nor a guarantee, but may be an option your service member can request before or shortly after a PCS (permanent change of station) if there is a need. Advance pay is a type of pay that is used to help offset the cost of the move and cover extraordinary expenses such as, loss of a spouse’s income, down payment on a home, or cost of maintaining two households. Advance pay is just that – an advance of your service member’s basic pay.

DoD Instruction 1340.18 provides the nitty, gritty details about advance pay. A service member may be eligible to apply for 1 – 3 months of advance pay. The repayment period ranges from 12 – 24 months. A service member can make a request to receive advance pay 30 days prior to a PCS or 60 days after a PCS. The service member’s administrative department can help process the necessary paperwork, form DD 2560.  A service member must be able to demonstrate why the funds are needed and a shopping spree or a new pool does not count as an unmet need. For example, the service member may be asked to complete a budget or financial worksheet outlining the additional costs related to the move. The service member must also be able to show that other pay entitlements do not cover these additional out-of-pocket costs of the move. If the service member requests more than one month of basic pay, the request will need to be reviewed by the service member’s immediate command. Likewise, if the service member requests a repayment period exceeding 12 months, the service member must justify the extended payback period.

Cautionary notes:

  • Advance pay is an interest-free advance of the service member’s basic pay and must be repaid. This means the service member’s pay will be reduced each month during the repayment period.
  • Advance pay must be repaid even if the service member voluntarily or involuntarily separates from the service. You borrowed against your future earnings and must pay it back.
  • Your advance pay is taxable income and may impact your income taxes. Be sure to consult with a tax professional to review your specific situation.

Personal stories from families who have applied for advance pay suggest having your justification and supporting paperwork ready. Many families are able to receive one month of basic pay with a 12 month repayment period. Anything beyond one month of pay and a 12 month repayment may not only involve the service member’s command but may also require financial counseling. Be sure to fully understand the cautionary notes before you request this benefit.

Have you requested advance pay? How did it impact your family’s budget?

Military Advance Pay – It’s not a Payday loanby Katie Savant, Government Relations Information Manager

We fight for military families: the Association’s 2013 priorities, Part 3

We fight for military families: the Association’s 2013 priorities, Part 3This is Part 3 of a series explaining the National Military Family Association’s legislative priorities for 2013. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Some issues affecting military families can only be taken care of through Congressional action. We see most of the work on these issues being addressed through the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets the laws and regulations for Department of Defense (DoD) and the Services to follow. The funding of this legislation comes through the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with the Defense Appropriations bill and the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill.

Congress did not pass the Appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2013 (FY13), which began on October 1, 2012. They passed a Continuing Resolution or CR, which forced DoD to work on 2013 missions, projects, and programs with 2012 levels of funding. The current Continuing Resolution will expire March 27. While military paychecks are protected for 2013, essential services could shut down if the CR is allowed to expire. This isn’t the first year we have had the threat of a government shutdown.

Pass the NDAA FY14

This is why our first “ask” for Congress is to pass the National Defense Authorization Act for FY14 and the bills that fund this legislation by October 1 in order to eliminate the uncertainty faced by the military community.

Increase Impact Aid

If you have children attending public schools, you should be aware of how important Impact Aid funding is to local school districts that educate large numbers of military children. We’re asking Congress to increase the level of Department of Education Impact Aid funding to meet the Federal obligation to support school districts educating military children and continue to fund the DoD supplemental impact aid and grant program. Impact Aid funding has not kept pace with rising education costs.

Protect surviving spouses

Survivors of service members who have died on active duty or from a service-connected disability are unfairly penalized by having their Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuity offset by the Department of Veterans Affairs Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payment. Under current law, survivors who are eligible for both SBP and DIC must forfeit a dollar of their SBP annuity for every dollar of DIC received. Often the offset eliminates the SBP annuity altogether. We ask Congress to end the DIC dollar for dollar offset of SBP payments for surviving spouses. For more details on this issue, visit the Survivors section on our website.

Ease transitions for the whole family

DoD does not always need Congressional approval to improve or change policies. We are asking DoD to address the informational needs of military families transitioning out of the military by expanding the opportunity for spouses to attend transition classes with service members and tailor information to address family transition issues.

Support families with special needs

It can often take DoD a long time to implement programs mandated by Congress. In the NDAA FY13, Congress charged DoD to start a pilot program to provide therapy for some families with special needs. We want DoD to implement the new pilot program to provide Applied Behavior Analysis to ALL eligible TRICARE beneficiaries.

If you have questions about our priorities for 2013 or would like to provide us with information about how these issues will affect you and your family, please leave a comment below. As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog series, we are sharing your stories, your experiences, and your suggestions to improve the quality of life for military families.

These are not the only issues we will be advocating for. When a new challenge surfaces that affects military families, we will make sure it is brought to the attention of the policymakers who can make a difference. We are listening to you and for you. We are your voice.

kathyPosted by Kathleen Moakler, Government Relations Director at the National Military Family Association

We fight for military families: the Association’s 2013 priorities, Part 2

We fight for military families: the Association's 2013 priorities, Part 2Yesterday we covered how we determine our legislative focus for the year. Today, Part 2 in our series on explaining our priorities for 2013.

This is the time of year we develop our list of priorities to share with policymakers. What needs to be done to make the benefits and programs that military families depend on more responsive to their needs right now and for the long term? What can the Department of Defense (DoD) do to improve or refine military family access to health care and mental health support? How can the schools our children attend better serve the needs of a mobile population in a time of diminishing school budgets? Why doesn’t the expansion of spouse career opportunities go hand in hand with quality, affordable child care? What support does a grateful Nation owe wounded service members, their caregivers, and the survivors of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice? How can DoD help those service members and families who are transitioning to civilian life?

Here’s the first part of our list of priorities – the priorities we will address to Congress, the Department of Defense, and the Services. Not all issues need to be addressed by legislation. Sometimes Congress asks for a report on how a program is working or to find out how a specific need is being addressed. While DoD may have policy jurisdiction, Congress – through language in the National Defense Authorization Act – can mandate that DoD take a certain action. That’s why we address these priorities to both Congress and DoD.

  • Ensure families of all seven Uniformed Services have timely access to high quality, affordable health care and a robust TRICARE benefit.
  • Enhance military families’ access to the medical and non-medical counseling they need to recover from the stress of long years at war. The progress made in lessening the stigma associated with seeking behavioral health care is threatened if service members and families cannot get help when needed.
  • Mandate tracking and reporting on military family member suicides. Anecdotal reports indicate the number of military family suicides is growing. We cannot address the problem until we know its extent.
  • Ensure that a robust, responsive system of reintegration support for families still trying to reconnect or deal with the effects of wounds, injuries, or illnesses is accessible across Services, components, and geographic locations.
  • Provide equal eligibility of benefits for caregivers of wounded, ill, or injured service members and veterans across all seven Uniformed Services and from all wars. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and DoD caregiver benefits don’t mesh and many caregivers lose the support they need just when they need it the most.
  • Ensure better cooperation and accountability between the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs at the highest levels in the support of transitioning wounded, ill, and injured and care givers. The lack of a seamless transition between agencies still exists and must be corrected.
  • Protect the commissary benefit by continuing the annual appropriation to support the system at its current level. Commissaries provide an important benefit for military families as well as a good deal for the taxpayer. Oppose attempts to consolidate the commissary and exchange system.

Do these resonate with what you are experiencing as a military family? What are your priorities for Congress and DoD for 2013?

Tomorrow’s post, Part 3 in this series, will look at the rest of our priorities for 2013. Read Part 1 here.

kathyPosted by Kathleen Moakler, Government Relations Director at the National Military Family Association

We fight for military families: the Association’s 2013 priorities, Part 1

We fight for military families: the Association's 2013 priorities part 1It’s always nice to know you have someone in your corner, someone you can count on who understands where you are coming from, someone who knows what your life is like, and who will stand beside you as you try to make life better for you and your family. The National Military Family Association is in your corner – in fact, our highest priority is to fight for military families.

We fight to ensure programs and benefits critical to the well-being of military families – our families – are authorized, funded, and implemented to be there when you need them. We know how important they are in maintaining your family readiness and empowering you to meet the challenges of military life.

Each year, at the beginning of the Congressional session, we gather information we have heard from you and develop a list of legislative and policy priorities that we will promote and advocate for on your behalf. Some of these priorities we will bring to the attention of Congress – those items that need legislative changes, updates, or fixes in order to better meet the needs of military families. Some priorities we bring to the attention of the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Services, to recommend changes to policies or regulations to better serve military families.

We use these priorities as a basis for the testimony we prepare for Congressional hearings every year. You can find examples of testimony from previous years on our website. Our testimony is not just a list of requests. We use our testimony to share your story – the story of the Nation’s families. We talk about the importance of the foundation of benefits and programs that military families depend upon: quality, accessible health care; behavioral health support; spouse career opportunities; good schools for military children; quality, affordable child care; a secure retirement; and unwavering support if wounded, widowed, or orphaned.

We talk about what is working for military families – the programs and resources meeting the needs of families most effectively. How do we know? We hear from you. We talk about how programs need to be flexible and accommodate the diversity of military families – whether they are far from the flag pole in recruiting duty or the family of a citizen soldier who lives nowhere near a military installation. We also remind Congress that effective support for military families must involve a broad network of government agencies, community groups, businesses, and concerned citizens. DoD and the Services cannot do it alone.

In our next two posts in this series we will explain and outline our Association’s specific priorities for 2013. Read Part 2 and Part 3 here.

kathyPosted by Kathleen Moakler, Government Relations Director at the National Military Family Association

20 years of the Family and Medical Leave Act – are you covered?

20 years of FMLA - are you covered?When you are welcoming a new baby, caring for an ill family member, or struggling with an illness yourself, your job is probably the last thing on your mind. Family challenges sometimes require our undivided attention, even if that means taking some time off work. This reality was addressed twenty years ago, when the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law. Since 1993, the FMLA has helped thousands of American workers by allowing them to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves and their families, secure in the knowledge that their jobs would be waiting for them when they came back.

In 2008, the FMLA was expanded to cover the families of service members. The new provisions allow family members of wounded, ill, or injured service members and veterans to take unpaid leave to care for them. Families of service members deployed overseas are also eligible to take unpaid leave in some circumstances. The expansion of the law has benefited many military families. As one spouse of a wounded veteran says, “It has been really a huge relief to know my job is protected but I can use the days as needed for his care.”

However, not every military family affected by deployment, illness, or injury is able to take advantage of the FMLA. To be eligible, an individual must have been employed by his or her employer for at least 12 months. Smaller companies with fewer than 50 employees are not covered by the Act. And some families of seriously wounded service members find that recovery takes longer than the 26 weeks of unpaid leave allowed under the FMLA, which forces them to quit their jobs.

February 5 is the 20th anniversary of the passage of the FMLA — a chance to look back on how the law has helped families and where it has fallen short. The National Partnership for Women and Families is collecting stories from people who have used leave to care for a new or adopted child, a sick family member, their own serious health condition, or to address a family member’s military deployment. They also want to hear from people who haven’t been able to rely on the FMLA’s protections because they weren’t covered by the law or couldn’t afford to take leave without pay.

Do you have a story to share about the FMLA? Visit the National Partnership for Women and Families’ Story Collection Survey and tell them about your experiences – or leave a comment below.

eileenPosted by Eileen Huck, Government Relations Deputy Director at the National Military Family Association

Looking back at 2012

National Military Family Association: A look back at 2012Where does a year go? It’s amazing to see the months fly by, filled with memorable occasions like weddings, road trips, big moves, and deployments. 2012 was a year of change, new ideas, and growth for the military community, and for us as well! Here’s how we spent our year.

Sometimes it seems like if something can go wrong, it will. Or when it rains, it pours. Whichever idiom you want to apply, 2012 brought a few unexpected lemons for us to make into lemonade. From the close call of a government shutdown in April, threats to commissary benefits, and the fiscal cliff negotiations in December, we were proud to be  the place military families turned to understand the impact of these actions and find out what could be done in response. It’s nice to know that no matter what comes our way, our community always makes it to the other side of the issue infinitely stronger.

With almost everyone and their grandma (literally) having a smart phone or social media account, these days it seems like we are more connected than ever. Military families are no different, and this year we created a few new ways to provide resources and support via the most-used platforms. Although we are all part of the same community, each military family faces its own challenges going through the many different stages and phases of life. Whether a family is preparing to move, expecting a baby, or anticipating a deployment, our new app, MyMilitaryLife, brings our subject matter expertise and important resources when and where it’s most needed. We’ve had nearly 4,000 downloads from the iTunes and GooglePlay stores, and with six more life paths being added in 2013, we look forward to growing our presence on this new mobile platform.

We are committed to providing spouses and families with the resources and programs needed to make military life a bit easier. We awarded $448,000 in scholarship funds to military spouses beginning or continuing their education through our Joanne Holbrook Patton Military Spouse Scholarship Program. Our Operation Purple® program had another great season, sending 1,581 military kids to camp across the country. With so many service members returning from deployment, creating a network of support during this period of change and adjustment was more important than ever. We held six Family Retreats and four Healing Adventures for families with a wounded or returning service member who needed to ease into the reintegration process after a deployment.

It went by fast, but 2012 was a productive and fulfilling year. We’re excited to see where 2013 takes us—stay tuned for a companion post on the Association’s goals for the year.

Your turn: what would you like to see us focus on this year?

maranathaPosted by Maranatha Bivens, Communications Editor at the National Military Family Association