Casey Introduces Legislation To Support National Guard Readiness And Their Families

WASHINGTON, DC-U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced two bills that aim to support the National Guard, Reserve Forces and their families.  The first, the Fortifying Operational Reserve Component Efforts (FORCE) Act provides support to the National Guard, Reserve members and their families by making benefit and healthcare programs more effective and accessible.  The second, the Servicemembers Access to Justice Act (SAJA) would close several loopholes and strengthen the protections in current law to ensure that servicemembers’ and veterans’ employment and reemployment rights are effectively enforced under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). 

“Our brave men and women serving our country already sacrifice time away from their families, jobs and lives,” said Senator Casey.  “We owe it to them to renew America’s social compact with the National Guard and Reserve and to update National Guard and Reserve programs and benefits to reflect the operation tempo of their service.  I’m pleased to have worked on these issues with Senator Kennedy who has long advocated on behalf of servicemembers’ and veterans’ employment rights and holding federal agencies accountable for enforcing them.  This legislation would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for his tireless and ongoing fight for servicemembers, veterans and their families.”

With some units facing their third deployments, America’s reserve component has transformed from a strategic reserve into an operational force.  However, many of their benefits and programs have not been updated to reflect this reality.  The FORCE Act targets four key areas – capacity building, healthcare, mental health and reintegration – to assist reserve component members and their families.

In 2008, Senator Casey introduced the Servicemembers Access to Justice Act with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and current President-elect Barack Obama.  According to the Department of Defense’s Status of Forces study released in November 2007, among post-9/11 returning Reservists and National Guard, nearly 11,000 were denied prompt reemployment and more than 20,000 lost seniority and thus pay and other benefits.  The SAJA would eliminate those problems by closing loopholes to ensure that returning reservists keep their jobs and employment benefits as required under current law.  This legislation seeks to restore the original intent of Congress to protect servicemembers under USERRA by making it clear that USERRA prohibits employers from paying lower wages to servicemembers simply because of their status as a servicemember, veteran or applicant to be a servicemember.  

The FORCE Act is supported by the Pennsylvania National Guard and the National Guard Association of the United States.

Summaries of the bills are below.

FORCE Act: Fortifying Operational Reserve Component Efforts Act of 2009

Capacity Building: While the U.S. military is focusing more programs on the National Guard and Reserve, many reserve component members and their families continue to state that they do not know where to turn for help and answers.  Therefore, the FORCE Act:

Requires the U.S. military to conduct a comprehensive review of its communication and outreach programs, including a survey of reserve component families, to best assess how to effectively communicate with reserve component members and their families about their needs
Designates one full time military personnel as a point of contact to assist families with their questions and concerns 

Healthcare: One of the many challenges faced by reserve component families is navigating through the military healthcare system, TRICARE.  This is particularly problematic because a reserve component member may only be on active duty for a year.  This bill seeks to alleviate that stress by letting families chose whether or not to keep their private healthcare or switch to the TRICARE system. The bill:

Provides spouses and dependents with a stipend, equivalent to the cost the government would pay for their TRICARE benefit, to use towards their private healthcare insurance
Requires the military to annually update its database of healthcare providers participating in the TRICARE program                                                                                                                                 

Mental Health: Studies have shown that 41 percent of reserve component members who have been deployed overseas report mental health symptoms within three to six months of returning home from deployment, compared with 32 percent of the regular components of the Armed Forces.  Therefore, the FORCE Act tries to connect reserve component members with the essential mental healthcare services. It

Increases the number of Post-Deployment Health Reassessments (PDHRAs) from one to four over a two-year period
Requires mental health training for all reserve component members
Authorizes the Defense Health Program to fund National Guard mental healthcare programs 

Reintegration: Once demobilized, reserve component members are supposed to reintegrating back into their communities.  However, while deployed they have changed as well as their communities.  The FORCE act provides reintegration assistance for reserve component members by:

·        Requiring additional Transitional Assistance Advisors per state

·        Affording reserve component members the ability to stay on active duty for at least 90 day upon return from deployment.  

Servicemembers’ Access to Justice Act would:

Make it easier for service members to obtain justice when their employment rights are violated by prohibiting employers from requiring servicemembers to give up their ability to enforce their rights under the USERRA in court in order to get a job or keep a job;  

Enhance the remedies available to servicemembers who prove that their rights under USERRA were violated, by adding minimum liquidated damages for willful violations and punitive damages for violations committed with malice; 

Include a provision for a GAO report requiring study of current employer education programs and soliciting recommendations for ways in which government agencies such as the Small Business Administration and the DoD Employer Support for Guard and Reserve could cooperate to enhance employer education; and 

Make it clear that USERRA prohibits employers from paying lower wages to servicemembers simply because of their status as a servicemember, veteran or applicant to be a servicemember.
 

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