Action in Congress

June 1, 2005

Expanding Tricare for Reserves

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), new chairman of the Senate military personnel subcommittee, says he is confident Congress this year will vote to open Tricare Standard to drilling Guard and Reserve members to recognize their increased role in fighting the war on terrorism.

Graham and a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Guard and Reserve Readiness and Retention Act of 2005 (S 337 and HR 558), which would allow any drilling reserve member to use Tricare Standard, the military’s fee-for-service health care option. It also would lower the retirement age for reservists, based on years served. Current reserve retirement begins at 60. (See “Action in Congress: New Legislation,” April, p. 27.)

In early April, when Graham chaired his first subcommittee hearing, he described prospects for opening Tricare Standard to drilling reservists as “excellent.”

However, David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of Defense, suggested at the hearing that an improved Tricare plan for reservists is unnecessary.

Only last year, Congress approved Tricare Reserve Select (TRS), a scaled-down version of Tricare Standard. Enrollment began April 26. TRS is only available to reserve component members who deactivate from post-9/11 deployments. They must have served at least 90 continuous days of active service. For every 90 days activated, they are allowed a year of TRS coverage. Enrollees also must sign a binding agreement to remain in drill status for the duration of TRS coverage. They pay monthly premiums of $75 for member-only TRS or $233 for family coverage. They also pay the usual Tricare Standard fees, co-payments, and deductibles.

Given operational demands on Guard and Reserve forces, Graham said, TRS just isn’t enough. He wants Tricare Standard open to all drilling reservists and their families with no monthly premiums, extended service commitments, or other TRS strings attached.

S 337 had 17 co-sponsors by mid-May. Graham said he expected at least 70 Senators to back the plan when he offers it later this year as a floor amendment to the 2006 defense authorization bill. Seventy is the number of Senators who supported a more ambitious reserve health care plan from Graham last year.

Graham also noted that more than 300 House members had endorsed a motion to instruct House conferees who worked on the Fiscal 2005 defense bill to agree to the Senate’s reserve health plan. Again, Graham said, that gesture left him confident that Congress will vote again for better health care benefits for drilling reservists.

The projected cost of the health care portion of S 337 is $3.8 billion over five years. That, said Graham, is half of last year’s estimate. He lowered the cost by limiting the reserve benefit to Tricare Standard only, excluding an option for Tricare Prime, the military managed care package. He also dropped a provision that would have required the government to cover the cost of premiums paid by reservists who elect to keep private health insurance during mobilization.

Traumatic Injury Insurance

A service member severely injured in war would receive swift lump-sum compensation of $25,000 to $100,000 under a rider clause to Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI). The Senate approved the change in mid-April as part of the wartime emergency supplemental bill.

Enactment virtually was assured since defense officials endorsed what is called traumatic injury insurance. The cost would be paid by a $1 increase in all monthly SGLI premiums. Payments would be retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, for severely injured service members who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Three soldiers severely wounded in Iraq—SSgt. Heath Calhoun, Sgt. Jeremy W. Feldbusch, and SSgt. Ryan Kelly—proposed the traumatic injury legislation to Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Craig then introduced it as an amendment to the wartime supplemental moving through Congress.

Families of the three soldiers, two of whom lost limbs and a third his eyesight in Iraq, had suffered financial hardship as the soldiers struggled through long rehabilitations. The soldiers brainstormed the traumatic injury rider to SGLI as a way to prevent other families from suffering similar hardships.

Injuries covered will include loss of limbs, blindness, loss of speech or hearing, paralysis, severe burns, and traumatic brain injuries. Payments would vary by the severity of injuries.

“The difference it will make on the family unit during convalescence is tremendous,” Kelly told a Capitol Hill press conference. He had lost his right leg to a roadside bomb. But the financial stress during rehabilitation, he said, far outweighed his physical stress.

Preventing G&R Manning Crisis

Congress is now considering 10 ambitious recruiting and retention incentives from Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. He believes they will be needed to help avert a manning crisis over the next several years.

The Army National Guard currently is short some 15,000 soldiers. The Air National Guard is only about 400 shy of its target, but ANG leaders still believe Congress should expand monetary options to aid future recruiting and retention efforts.

Lawmakers are studying measures that would:

  • Raise the enlistment bonus ceiling to $40,000 for the Army and Air National Guard.
  • Change the bonus dollars offered to prior-service members who still have service obligations from the current $50 per month to a lump-sum bonus of $10,000.
  • Increase reserve Montgomery GI Bill education benefits to equal 50 percent of active duty MGIB benefits. Reserve benefits for a full-time student would climb from $288 to $502 per month.
  • Allow reserve members to transfer unused education benefits to immediate family members.
  • Change tax laws to make all reserve enlistment and retention bonuses and incentives tax free.
  • Provide $400 million in “quick ship” bonuses to entice recruits to enter service in off-season months to keep training pipelines full. These amounts would be paid on top of enlistment bonuses.
  • Double to $4,000 the current $2,000 bonus offered for converting a reservist’s military specialty to a skill in greater demand. This would be separate from, and could be paid concurrently with, other bonuses.
  • Offer a new $2,500 bonus to current National Guard members who refer a qualified prospect to enlist.
  • Payment would be tied to the prospect of qualifying for an occupational specialty. The Army Guard wouldspend $25 million a year on this program, in 2005 and 2006, and the Air National Guard half that amount.
  • Offer term of enlistment options from two years up to six years, providing those opting for shorter terms with reduced bonuses.
  • Remove a legal limitation that sets a maximum of one six-year and two three-year re-enlistment bonuses. The proposed change would permit bonuses of one to six years until the reservist reaches 18 years of service.

    Death Benefits

    The Senate approved, as the House had earlier, a combined increase in military death benefits of $238,000 as part of the Fiscal 2005 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act (HR 1268). However, their separate versions of the bill took different paths in applying the increases to active duty deaths. (See “Action in Congress: Death Benefits To Rise,” May, p. 34.)

    A House-Senate conference committee will meet to reconcile disparities between the two bills before final passage.

    The House bill would apply the added $88,000 death gratuity to deaths resulting from injuries or illnesses incurred during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq and Kuwait as determined by regulation to be written by the Secretary of Defense. The additional $150,000 in SGLI would be paid in cases of death resulting from injuries or illnesses incurred “in the performance of duty,” a broader definition than that used for the death gratuity.

    The Senate approved an amendment from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to have the death gratuity gains applied to all active duty deaths back to Oct. 7, 2001. The Senate increase to SGLI, however, would apply retroactively only to deaths tied to combat.

    Reserve Pay Replacement

    In its version of the wartime supplemental, the Senate approved an amendment from Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) that would require the government to make up for any overall pay cut felt by federal civilian employees who have been mobilized as reservists for the war on terrorism.

    Durbin argues that the Administration should do for federal civilians who serve as reservists what the Defense Department encourages private sector employers to do.

    An estimated 26,000 federal employees are serving on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations. Their military pay, on average, is $3,000 less than their federal civilian salaries, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Durbin’s amendment would ensure that they receive the difference, matching the practice of some private companies.

    The Senate agreed to an identical amendment from Durbin last year; however it was stripped out of last year’s wartime supplemental when a House-Senate conference committee met to iron out differences in their bills.

    GI Bill of Rights

    House Democrats in April reintroduced the GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century, which includes a host of proposed military personnel and veterans benefit gains. (See “AFA in Action,” p. 85.)

    The provisions include:

  • Eliminating the offset that occurs in Survivor Benefit Plan annuities when widows draw Dependent and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Adding $3.2 billion to the Bush Administration’s budget request to provide full funding to the VA.
  • Ending what remains of the ban on concurrent receipt of military retirement and VA disability compensation, to include veterans with disability ratings of less than 50 percent.
  • Increasing Montgomery GI Bill benefits.

    Unemployable Update

    The Senate attached to its 2005 wartime supplemental appropriations bill a “sense of the Senate” provision urging defense officials to allow 28,000 military retirees rated unemployable by the VA to be paid full military retirement in addition to their VA disability compensation. Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) proposed the amendment.

    The measure would correct what many lawmakers consider a misinterpretation of the accelerated concurrent receipt initiative Congress passed last year. At present, DOD applies the initiative only to 23,000 retirees rated 100 percent disabled by the VA. It does not apply it to retirees who the VA has deemed unemployable but who have ratings less than 100 percent.

    A “sense of the Senate” notation is a nonbinding request that DOD does not have to follow. Analysts believe the department will not agree to restore full retired pay to the unemployable population without formal clarification of the law by Congress.

    Reid vowed that if, as expected, defense officials ignore the sense of the Senate provision, he would try to include binding language in the 2006 defense authorization bill, directing restoration of full retired pay back to Jan. 1 of this year.