Action in Congress

June 1, 2006

Fixing the Reserve GI Bill

An inequity in Reserve Montgomery GI Bill benefits, which surfaced during mobilization of tens of thousands of National Guard and Reserve personnel for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, must be fixed. So says Rep. Vic Snyder (Ark.), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee.

Snyder, a Vietnam veteran, received 45 months of GI Bill benefits in return for his service, enough to complete two years of college and three years of medical school.

Active duty members today who buy into the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) also do well with post-service education benefits. But National Guard and Reserve members who leave service after their commitment is up, even if it included two years of involuntary call up with a year or more in a combat zone, forfeit unused benefits.

“It really is unconscionable how these young men and women are being treated now that have served their nation in a time of war and completed their enlistment contract,” said Snyder.

David S.C. Chu, DOD’s top manpower official, promised Snyder that the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, a year-long study of military pay and benefits, will review the need for modifying reserve GI Bill benefits.

Service associations are pressing for a new Total Force GI Bill, which would give the reserve benefits portability and make other changes. One change would raise the basic reserve benefit to equal half the value of active duty MGIB, vs. only 29 percent today.

DOD Backs Off Tricare Fee Boost

The Defense Department, once determined to raise Tricare fees for under-65 retirees and their families, now says it won’t try to do so without an endorsement from Congress. (See “Action in Congress: Tricare Fee Plan Blasted,” May, p. 30.)

Some lawmakers see the proposed fees as too high, some worry about the political impact in an election year, and some are uneasy about any perceived cut in benefits while troops are at war.

It seems that no lawmaker has embraced the DOD argument that the planned fees are a necessary “re-norming” of beneficiary costs to protect a first-class health plan.

The House and Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittees held separate hearings on military health care in April. In the House hearing room, one saw boxes filled with some 40,000 letters and telegrams from angry retirees and survivors of retirees.

Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and William Winkenwerder Jr., the department’s health affairs chief, were not successful in making their case to the lawmakers. Nor were the service vice chiefs, who lined up with the Pentagon leaders on this issue.

Snyder Smacks “Hand-Wringing”

Snyder challenged hand-wringing by military leaders over the widening disparity between Tricare fees and employer insurance premiums.

“We want there to be a disparity, because that’s part of what we get for people turning their life over to us 24 hours a day,” said Snyder, who added that Congress will “pay for health care for our men and women in uniform and retirees.”

DOD projects that “modest” fee increases will encourage 144,000 current retiree users to leave Tricare and discourage more than 350,000 other beneficiaries from moving into Tricare.

What those estimates really mean, quipped Snyder, is that 500,000 retirees don’t agree that the fee increases are modest.

New Retiree HSAs

DOD has asked Congress for authority to begin a Health Savings Account (HSA) pilot program for military retirees under age 65. Participants would forfeit their right to Tricare for a chance to build a nest egg and enjoy some tax breaks by combining an HSA with a high-deductible health insurance plan.

Who might be interested? DOD wants to find out. Several of these HSAs began to be offered to federal civilian employees last year. As with conventional health insurance for federal civilians, the government would pay roughly 72 percent of the cost, with plan enrollees paying 28 percent as premiums.

Under HSAs, total contributions often are set to cover beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket medical expenses up to the amount of the deductible.

Savings accounts can grow if beneficiaries stayed healthy or used health care services prudently, and when beneficiaries become eligible for Medicare instead, the balances can be converted into individual retirement accounts.

Blocking Funeral Protests

Congress wants to protect grieving service families from the cruelty of protests at the interment of loved ones. At issue are funeral protests by some church members who oppose homosexuals in the military.

Starting last summer, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, Kan., have picketed the funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan with bitter chants and signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God for IEDs,” the explosive devices planted by insurgents that have killed and maimed hundreds of Americans.

The group claims the bombs are God’s justice for the government “condoning” homosexuality in the military.

The House has passed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act to prohibit demonstrations at VA cemeteries or at Arlington National Cemetery, unless approved by the cemetery superintendent or director.

The bill, introduced by a bipartisan group, also would ban demonstrations within 500 feet of a cemetery at which a military funeral or memorial service is to be held, from 60 minutes before until 60 minutes after the ceremony, if the demonstration includes any noise or diversion that disturbs “the peace or good order of the funeral or memorial service.”

The protests do not represent a significant movement. The Westboro church has a 75-member congregation.