Action in Congress

Dec. 1, 2008

Pay Raise, Other Benefits

Members of the American armed services will get a 3.9 percent pay raise in January, the 10th consecutive time they have received an annual basic pay increase that surpasses private sector wage growth by at least a half percentage point.

This is part of the Fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill approved by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 14. Other personnel-related highlights in the defense bill are:

Tricare Reserve Select. Premiums paid by drilling reservists and their families for TRS coverage will be lowered in 2009 to match actual program costs. For member-only coverage, premiums will fall to about $47 a month from $81. Family coverage premiums will fall to $175 from $253.

Chiropractic health—By Sept. 30, 2009, chiropractic services will be offered to active duty members at 11 more military treatment facilities.

  • Lodging expense. Military travelers will see maximum temporary lodging expense (TLE) reimbursements raised to $290 per day from $180.
    • Spouse employment. The Defense Department will be authorized to pay tuition assistance to spouses of active duty service members for education and training programs that expand their job opportunities.
        Special weight allowance. The services will be allowed to pay an additional weight allowance of up to 500 pounds to ship professional books and equipment of military spouses on change-of-station moves.

      Preventive Health Care

      Congress once again rejected efforts to raise Tricare fees, deductibles, and drug co-payments, most of which had been aimed at working-age military retirees.

      Instead, lawmakers adopted new enticements for beneficiaries to stay healthy through no-fee checkups, age-appropriate disease screening, stop-smoking help, and other “wellness” programs.

      The four-part plan includes:

      Waiver of Tricare co-payments for various preventive services. These include screening for colorectal, breast, cervical, prostate, and other problems; annual physical exams; and vaccinations. Excluded are Medicare-eligible beneficiaries, except in Fiscal 2009. In only that year, which began Oct. 1, 2008, DOD has authority to reimburse Medicare-eligible beneficiaries for co-payments.

      A new cost-free smoking cessation program for non-Medicare-eligible beneficiaries will include counseling, support groups, a toll-free quit line and nicotine-replacement drugs. The program is to be established by mid-April 2009. Nicotine-replacement drugs are to be made available only by mail order.

      DOD is directed to test, on 1,500 members, effectiveness of a “preventive health services allowance,” set at $500 per individual and $1,000 per family, if they take full advantage of preventive health care services.

      The Pentagon also is directed to test—in three Tricare Prime areas—new health risk management techniques, focusing on younger retirees and their families. This will include a wellness assessment and new monetary and non-monetary incentives to find out what works best to change unhealthy behaviors.

      Paters Militarias

      One of the more surprising personnel-related initiatives in the authorization bill is a new paternity leave benefit.

      Male service members are authorized 10 days of paternity leave for children born on or after Oct. 14, 2008.

      The extra days’ leave won’t count against 30 days of annual leave, but each service will determine when qualifying members can use the new leave benefit in light of mission needs, unit deployment schedules, and command priorities, a defense official said.

      Another SBP Rejection

      Congress again rejected a Senate plan to allow concurrent receipt of military Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

      It also declined to lower the age-60 threshold for the start of reserve annuities for all reserve component members who have deployed since 9/11.

      The Senate for a fourth straight year had voted to restore full SBP payments to more than 55,000 surviving spouses who see them reduced, dollar for dollar, by DIC payments. Also for a fourth straight year, that initiative collapsed in final negotiations with the House.

      The Senate decided not even to vote on many other key personnel amendments, and quickly passed the defense bill, after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) insisted on putting to a vote an amendment that would put at risk up to $5 billion in special earmarks.

      Among amendments sacrificed to protect those earmarks was one from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) that would have made more than 140,000 reservists mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, eligible for earlier reserve retirement if they completed at least 20 years of qualifying service.

      Congress a year ago adopted a pared down Chambliss amendment on reserve retirement that lowered the age 60 start of retired pay for Reserve and National Guard members who mobilize for war or national emergencies. A reservist would see retired pay begin three months earlier for every 90 consecutive days mobilized.

      Congress only found money to make this change applicable to deployment time after Jan. 28, 2008. Chambliss’ amendment this year would have applied the change to mobilizations since Sept. 11. But Chambliss himself voted with colleagues to shelve this and all further amendments when DeMint and other fiscal conservatives insisted on challenging the earmarks.

      End to VA Budget Delays

      The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees have vowed to push to enactment next year legislation that would guarantee timely, fully funded budgets each year for the VA health care system.

      The so-called “advance budgeting” initiative was introduced symbolically this fall before lawmakers recessed for the election. But Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and his counterpart, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), promise to reintroduce their bills in the 111th Congress and shepherd them into law.

      The proposed Veterans Health Care Budget Reform Act is the brainchild of nine veterans service organizations that formed a Partnership for Veterans’ Health Care Budget Reform. These groups are: AMVETS, the Blinded Veterans Association, Disabled American Veterans, Jewish War Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the American Legion, VFW, and Vietnam Veterans of America.

      The intent of the budget reform bill is to approve VA health care funding a year in advance to end a disruptive pattern by Congress of passing VA budgets months after budget years begin Oct. 1. VA hospitals and clinics have been forced by these delays to operate with funds frozen at previous-year levels. This unnecessarily results in supply and staff shortages, hiring freezes, and delays in buying critical equipment.

      The budget reform bill would put the VA health care budget under an “advance appropriation” schedule. A second part of the legislation would improve VA health care funding by requiring that VA use a new actuarial model it has developed that is quite accurate in projecting the per capita cost of providing health care to VA’s enrolled patient population.

      Filner called the legislation a “historic new approach to guarantee that our veterans have access to comprehensive, quality health care.”

      New GI Bill on Time

      The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin benefits under the new post-9/11 GI Bill on schedule next August but payments will be processed manually rather than rely on an industry standard computer program.

      Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said concerns raised by some members of Congress that VA might not be able to start the new GI Bill by Aug. 1, 2009, the date set in law, are unfounded.

      But Wilson said payments will have to be processed by hand, as now occurs with Montgomery GI Bill and other education benefits claims, because an automated processing system won’t be ready.

      The new GI Bill, when it begins, will nearly double the value of VA education benefits for eligible veterans. But it is a far more complicated benefit than the Montgomery GI Bill program. Wilson said it will take VA until October of 2010 to develop a computer system to process payments.

      The MGIB pays veterans a flat rate monthly benefit regardless of the school they attend. If tuition is low, the veteran pockets the difference. If tuition is higher than MGIB payments, the veteran pays the difference out of pocket.

      Under the post-9/11 GI Bill, tuition and fees will be paid directly to schools based on what each school charges. But two other elements of the new GI Bill will be paid to students. One is a housing allowance based on where they live. The second is a $1,000-a-year stipend for books and supplies.

      “This program has a lot more variables, and each payment amount going out in support of a veteran will be unique to that veteran,” Wilson said.

      Soon after Congress approved the new GI Bill, VA officials said they would accelerate the plan to fully automate the processing of education benefits. Then they concluded the necessary expertise wasn’t available in house so they would have to find a contractor.

      By October, this course was deemed too risky for meeting an Aug. 1, 2009 start for the new GI Bill. So VA announced it would “rely upon its own workforce to set up the information technology programs needed to implement the educational benefits of the new post-9/11 GI Bill.”

      When lawmakers and veterans service groups complained that the VA appeared to be putting the start date in jeopardy, Wilson came forward to clarify that the new GI Bill would begin on time.

      Wilson said VA will hire enough people to process new GI Bill claims at least as fast as now occurs for MGIB users, an average of 19 days between application and payment. With an automated system, he said, the goal will be 10 days, and most applications will be processed and approved in a day.

      VA, he said, was “just not willing to gamble benefit payments on this type of initiative” now. It’s more important to start the new benefit on time.