Pay Raise 2008A 3.5 percent pay raise for military members next January became a near-certainty in late May when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted for an increase of that size in its mark of its Fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill (S 567).
The House earlier had included the same raise in its own version of the bill (HR 1585). A 3.5 percent raise is a half-percentage point higher than recent wage growth in the private sector.
The Office of Management and Budget argued for a return to the practice of setting military raises to match wage growth nationwide, as measured by the government’s Employment Cost Index (ECI). It said such raises would be enough to sustain recruiting, retention, and quality of life.
House members and Senators disagreed. In fact the House voted to keep annual military pay raises a half-percentage point above ECI-tracked wage growth through January 2012. The Senate committee’s language deals only with the 2008 raise.
For example, both reject the Pentagon’s call for higher Tricare fees, deductibles, and co-payments and would restore $1.9 billion to the health care budget.
Expansion of CRSC—Both the House and Senate bill would expand eligibility for Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) to Chapter 61 retirees, those forced by disability to leave service short of 20 years. The Senate committee would allow all retirees with combat-related disabilities, regardless of their years of service, to receive both disability compensation and CRSC. The CRSC would be equal in value to military retired pay based on years served. For example, an eligible retiree forced out after 16 years would receive monthly CRSC equal to 2.5 percent of monthly basic pay multiplied by 16 years. The House bill is more limited. It would expand CRSC eligibility only to those Chapter 61 retirees who served at least 15 years and have combat-related disabilities rated 60 percent or higher.
Reserve GI bill—The House bill says it is laying the groundwork to improve Reserve Montgomery GI Bill benefits in future years by voting to transfer oversight for the program from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Under DOD, Reserve GI Bill rates have been frozen for years. Proponents say they need to be raised to provide a more robust benefits package to all reservists. If the program is turned over to VA, benefits would be raised annually along with active duty MGIB rates. Defense officials oppose the move, saying Reserve MGIB is an important recruiting and retention tool they should manage. Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), chairman of the House military personnel subcommittee, said once VA has oversight of Reserve GI Bill, the House will move to raise benefits closer to those provided to active duty members. Snyder also wants to see reserve benefits made portable so reservists can use them after they leave drill status. The Senate bill is silent on the issue.
Survivor benefits—The Senate committee would allow guardians and caretakers of dependent children to receive SBP benefits. This would close a coverage gap brought to light with casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan that left some grandparents who care for surviving children ineligible for SBP benefits to help raise them.
Accumulated leave—The number of unused leave days that any service member can carry over from one fiscal year to the next would be raised to 90 under the Senate committee’s bill. The current ceiling for unused leave days is 60. Senators say the pace of operations in recent years has prevented many service members from using their leave. The problem becomes a greater sacrifice if they permanently lose unused leave because of the 60-day rule. The House bill is silent on this issue.
The report landed as Congress moved to block for another year higher Tricare fees proposed by the Bush Administration.
It also recommended raising beneficiary co-payments on prescriptions filled in the Tricare retail pharmacy network; indexing Tricare fees and deductibles so beneficiary costs rise automatically each year with health care costs; and establishing a “tiered” Tricare fee structure so that retirees with bigger annuities pay more than retirees with smaller annuities.
Because Tricare fees haven’t been raised since the program began, defense officials recommended sharp fee increases in a package of proposals first sent to Congress in 2006. That “Sustain the Benefit” package was criticized by lawmakers as trying to raise fees too far and too fast. The task force agreed in part, recommending that changes be phased in over three to five years.
The report says that to soften the impact of fee increases, Congress could consider a one-time increase in military retirement pay.
The Returning Service Member VA Health Care Insurance Act (HR 612) would extend the period of eligibility for free health care for combat service in the Persian Gulf or future hostilities from two years to five after a veteran’s discharge. This change should help veterans who may have health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, whose symptoms can surface long after they leave service. The bill would apply only to veterans who served in combat during or after the 1991 Gulf War.
The Early Access to Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Benefits Act (HR 2239) would expand eligibility for these programs to injured service members before their discharge. Current law doesn’t allow VA to provide VR&E benefits until after discharge, which can delay convalescence and slow their entrance into the job market.
HR 1470 would amend the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Programs Enhancement Act of 2001 to require VA to provide more chiropractic care and services. No fewer than 75 Veterans Affairs medical centers would have chiropractic care by calendar year 2010.
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