2006 Military Personnel Initiatives
President Bush’s 2006 defense budget request to Congress in February contains a 3.1 percent military pay increase, the seventh straight set at half a percentage point higher than private sector wage growth to make service pay more competitive.
The Administration also proposed increasing military housing allowances next January by enough to keep pace with rental costs, estimated at four percent nationwide.
Those are the only significant active duty qualify of life initiatives in the 2006 request, which also contained nothing new for Guard and Reserve personnel. Indeed, in unveiling the budget at the Pentagon, defense officials cited reserve initiatives Congress approved last year, providing $203 million next year on expanded transition health benefits and Montgomery GI Bill benefits for mobilized reservists.
Under the GI Bill provisions, National Guard and Reserve members mobilized for more than 90 consecutive days but less than a year will receive an additional $114 per month in benefits in 2005, for a total of $402 per month. Members mobilized from one to two consecutive years will receive an additional $314 per month for a total of $602. Members mobilized more than two consecutive years will receive an additional $515, a total of $803 per month.
2006 Veterans Initiatives
The Administration for the third year in a row proposed a $250 annual enrollment fee and higher pharmacy co-payments for veterans in lower-priority categories 7 and 8, which include those who are neither poor nor suffering from service-connected disabilities. Congress already has moved to derail half the President’s plan.
Republican majorities on both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees rejected the proposal to increase the $7 co-payment to $15. They did embrace the idea of an annual enrollment fee for 2.4 million lower-priority veterans.
The Senate panel, chaired by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), echoed the call for a straight $250 annual fee. But the House committee, chaired by Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), voted to set the annual fee for priority 7 enrollees at $230, matching the yearly enrollment fee for under-65 military retirees who use Tricare Prime, the military managed care program. For priority 8 veterans, the House plan proposes a four-tier sliding scale fee—$230, $250, $350, or $500—depending on a veteran’s income.
Craig and Buyer, in separate letters to their budget committees, explained that difficult choices have to be made this year to curb costs or increase VA revenues, given the thousands of new veterans returning from war with severe injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.
“VA must garner supplemental funding from some source, and there are no easy options,” Craig wrote.
Veterans service organizations have protested that $250 a year is too much even for nonindigent veterans to pay. However, Craig noted the Tricare fee for retirees, saying that shorter-serving veterans are no “more worthy” than retirees.
Buyer, too, said enrollment fees will “correct the inequity” between lower-priority veterans and Tricare users.
Senate and House committee Democrats sent their own “views and estimates” letters to the budget committees urging rejection of the enrollment fees for lower-priority veterans and recommending new initiatives costing several billion dollars.
Democrats joined veterans service organizations in condemning the enrollment fees, which they said would discourage veterans from using VA health care. They said the effect would send the “wrong message” in wartime.
Death Benefits Advance
The Bush Administration has earmarked $400 million of the Defense Department’s new $75 billion wartime supplemental budget to be used to improve military death benefits.
Those death benefits, as the supplemental moves toward Senate passage at least, continue to be the set worked out late last year between Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. They would raise maximum coverage under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance from $250,000 to $400,000, and the government would pay premiums on that additional coverage to all members assigned to combat areas. Also, the current $12,400 death gratuity would be increased to $100,000 but only for deaths that occur in combat areas.
The service vice chiefs of staff and various service associations opposed creation of a kind of two-tiered death gratuity during early February testimony before House and Senate committees. But supporters of alternatives to Sessions’ bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), appeared to have no time to gain traction, particularly in the Senate, as Republicans moved swiftly to pass the President’s latest wartime supplemental.
Service associations sounded resigned to having to address what will be a death gratuity disparity, based on where a service member is killed, in subsequent legislation. The Military Coalition, an umbrella group for more than three dozen service associations, including the Air Force Association, also recommended providing $100,000 in SGLI coverage cost-free to any member who elects $300,000 in paid coverage. Additionally, they wanted to end reductions in military survivor benefits for those who also receive VA indemnity payments because the member died while on active duty or because the retiree died from service-connected ailments.
Aid to Survivors
Sen. Larry Craig called on military, Social Security, and VA officials to coordinate death benefit information and be far more responsive in caring for families that have suffered wartime losses. The chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee was responding to testimony he heard in mid-February from families that lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The testimony of these families that said they waited months for various services and payments or received contradictory information from agencies was “stunning and upsetting,” said Craig.
“Today we found out that many of those new widows are not getting the level of service they should be receiving,” Craig said.
Tiffany Petty, a 25-year-old mother of two from Craig’s home state, said she first was told her husband was killed instantly, only to learn later that he died some time after being wounded. Then she got confused and contradictory information on what benefits she and her children would receive, and nine months after her husband’s funeral, she said, she learned that its bill hadn’t been paid as she had expected.
Craig urged the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to work with the Social Security Administration to provide a “one-stop” information source to survivors, both in writing and on the Internet, where they can go to get customized, integrated benefit information.
Key Bills Reintroduced
In the 109th Congress, lawmakers have reintroduced various bills important to military retirees and survivors. Here’s a rundown:
Paid-Up SBP Premiums. Rep. James Saxton (R-N.J.) has reintroduced a bill (HR 968) to change the effective date from Oct. 1, 2008, to Oct. 1, 2005, for paid-up coverage under the Survivor Benefit Plan for retirees who reach age 70 and have paid premiums for at least 30 years. In approving the paid-up rule in 1998, Congress delayed the effective date by 10 years to reduce costs.
Here are a few of the scores of new bills introduced to improve benefits for active duty service members, reservists, or military retirees:
Introduced by Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) in the House and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, the bill would allow Guardsmen and Reservists to buy coverage under Tricare, whether or not they are mobilized.
It also would lower reserve retirement age based on the number of years served. Current retirement age of 60 would be reduced by a year for every two years a reservist served beyond 20 years. So a 20-year reservist still would retiree at age 60, but a reservist with 34 years could retire at 53.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, would cost $7 billion over five years, Latham said.
The bill would close the income gap between military pay and what reserve component members would have earned in the civilian jobs they have given up. The government would be required to do so for deployed reservists who are federal civilian employees, and the bill would offer incentives for private sector employers to follow that lead.
The key incentive would be a tax credit of up to half the salary that an activated reservist would have earned if he or she had remained a civilian. The amount would be capped at $30,000 per employee.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was expected to introduce companion legislation in the Senate.