Action in Congress

June 1, 2008

Webb GI Bill Gains Support …

Active duty members, reserve component personnel, and veterans who have served on active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks would gain a far more valuable GI Bill education benefit under a bill (S 22) modified and reintroduced by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.).

The changes Webb made were enough to win the influential endorsement of his colleague from Virginia, Republican Sen. John W. Warner. The former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee promised “to go full bore” to win enactment before he retires next January.

Webb’s Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act still faces huge obstacles. One will be finding the money to cover the bill’s estimated cost of some $2 billion a year. Another is stiffening opposition from Defense Department officials who have dubbed Webb’s plan a “retention killer.”

Webb originally wanted a World War II-style GI Bill that would pay the full cost of four years of college anywhere in the country. That idea was rolled back before the bill was introduced last year. He lowered his sights again this year to attract more support.

Webb’s GI Bill still would be available to any member, active or reserve, who served at least three months on active duty since the terrorist attacks. The value of the benefit would be tied to length of post-9/11 service.

The bill would require no contribution from beneficiaries; thus, the $1,200 buy-in payment required under current Montgomery GI Bill rules would be returned to eligible veterans who paid it.

Monthly education payments would be set high enough to cover tuition at the most expensive state-run college. So the average monthly payment likely would be about $1,900 a month versus $1,100 under MGIB. To qualify for a full 36 months of benefits, a member would have had to serve 36 months on active duty after 9/11.

The Webb plan also includes a monthly stipend to cover living expenses tied to local rents. In fact, the stipend would be set to equal the amount of Basic Allowance for Housing paid locally to a married E-5.

… But Pushback Is Strong

To win Warner’s support, the revised bill has a feature to encourage expensive private colleges to make their schools more affordable to veterans. Those institutions that agree to forgo half of their tuition costs above the most expensive state school would see the government pay the remaining half. This would allow academically qualified veterans to attend some of the best schools in the country, Warner said.

Both the House and the Senate have passed budget resolutions containing provisions that give committee chairmen unspecified “reserve funds” to finance improvements in the GI Bill. But that reserve fund authority only can be exercised if the veterans’ committee chairmen find ways to reduce spending on other entitlement programs by the cost of the new GI Bill.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, had earlier suggested that he shared Defense Department concerns that Webb’s GI Bill could harm retention among career military members. Akaka was among the bill’s 57 co-sponsors as of the end of April.

Defense officials began sounding an alarm over the Webb bill when Warner got behind it. One Pentagon official said enhancing post-service education benefits, especially with troops facing multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, could put the viability of a volunteer force at risk.

“Why would anybody stay for another deployment when they can go out on a four-year free ride, with guaranteed rent and utilities at the E-5 standard, which by long-standing DOD policy is a two-bedroom townhouse?” this official asked.

The Pentagon favors instead making MGIB benefits transferable to spouses and children and promised Congress a proposal later in the year.

Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), who introduced in the House his own HR 2702, a companion to Webb’s GI Bill, said he doesn’t like the concept of encouraging service members to trade away earned education benefits to family members. It would even be “unfair,” Scott said, to put members in that situation where they could be seen as selfish if they didn’t transfer benefits to family members. Webb too said he opposes Montgomery GI BIll transferability.

Medicare-Tricare Doctor Fees

Service associations—including the Air Force Association—have joined with the American Medical Association to oppose scheduled cuts in Medicare payments to doctors—a move that could also have an impact on reimbursements to civilian physicians participating in Tricare.

Unless Congress intervenes, Medicare payments to doctors are to fall an average of 10.6 percent in July, with an additional 5.4 percent cut to occur in January 2009.

Tricare reimbursements to physicians are tied to Medicare. In fact, Tricare support contractors often force participating physician networks to accept discounted fees from Medicare reimbursements. If those reimbursements were to fall, advocates for military beneficiaries fear many more physicians will refuse to see Tricare patients.

The Bush Administration’s Fiscal 2009 budget assumes that the cuts will occur. But Tricare advocates have joined with the AMA in urging lawmakers to support Sen. Debbie A. Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) bill, S 2785, the Save Medicare Act of 2008, which would block scheduled cuts to Medicare fees and authorize modest increases over the next two years.

“No” to Higher Tricare Fees

Despite a new task force report calling for higher Tricare fees for working-age military retirees (See “Action in Congress: Task Force Sees New Fees,” February, p. 80). Congressional leaders say that won’t happen.

Democratic chairmen and ranking Republicans on the Armed Services Committee are unanimous again this year in rejecting the Bush Administration’s call for higher Tricare fees, deductibles, and co-payments for retirees under age 65 and their families.

Administration officials had hoped that endorsement of higher fees by the Defense Department’s Task Force on the Future of Military Health Care, which Congress established, would sway minds on Capitol Hill. But there was no sign of it, not with wars continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan and budget deficits rising sharply as a consequence.

Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, appeared to soft-pedal arguments for Tricare fee increases this year during Fiscal 2009 hearings before the Armed Services Committees in February.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), a freshman on the House Armed Services Committee and former military spouse, suggested to Gates that the projected Tricare savings are “a shell game” because they assume many retirees, facing higher Tricare costs, will go elsewhere for their health insurance, presumably using civilian employer plans.

Tina W. Jonas, the DOD comptroller, responded for Gates that the fee increases, based on recommendations of a task force Congress commissioned, would help to sustain a prized benefit. Jonas noted that Tricare fees have been frozen since they were set in the mid-1990s. But, she added, “Obviously it’s something that we cannot do without the help and engagement of the Congress.”