Action in Congress

Sept. 1, 2005

Senate Backs Full Reserve Tricare

Any drilling National Guard or Reserve member would be eligible to enroll in Tricare Reserve Select, a premium-based version of Tricare Standard, under an amendment to the Fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill approved by the Senate in late July. The measure passed on a voice vote.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the armed services’ military personnel subcommittee and sponsor of the legislation, warned that he was prepared to fight to enhance reserve health benefits during final negotiations on the defense bill in a House-Senate conference committee.

The House Armed Services Committee in May approved a measure similar to the one passed by the Senate, but the committee chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), pulled it from the defense bill before sending the bill to the House floor. Hunter used his prerogative as chairman to strike the provision, which he decided would violate House budget rules by raising mandatory spending without providing an offsetting reduction.

The Senate legislation has backing on both sides of the aisle. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) signed on as co-sponsors. And Warner promised to press House colleagues.

The measure would provide full-time military health insurance for drilling reservists who would pay monthly premiums of $75 for member-only coverage and $233 for family coverage, plus Tricare Standard’s usual deductibles and co-payments.

The estimated cost to taxpayers is $3.85 billion over the first five years, rising to roughly $1 billion annually.

Congress voted last year to limit Tricare Reserve Select to Guard and Reserve members who are deactivated from post-9/11 deployments after continuous active service of 90 days or longer. They are eligible for a year’s coverage for every 90 days served. They also must agree to remain in the Selected Reserve for the period of coverage.

TRS Pros and Cons

House Republican leaders and the Bush Administration oppose expanding TRS to all reservists because of the cost and worry that many civilian employers will take advantage of the government’s generosity to tighten their own health benefits for employees in the reserve components.

Hunter complained it would be impossible to “keep people from gaming the system and piling enormous costs onto the federal government.”

However, proponents of TRS expansion point to the role Guard and Reserve members play in the war on terrorism, with tens of thousands fighting side by side with active duty members in Iraq and Afghanistan. They estimate that 18 percent of drilling reservists, when in a drill status, lack health insurance.

Graham said they “are the only part-time federal employees who are currently ineligible for federal government full-time health care benefits.”

He maintains that full-time medical benefits will help Guard and Reserve recruiting and retention.

“You cannot help these families enough, and $3.8 billion over five years is the least we can do,” Graham said. He added, “What does it cost to have the Guard and Reserve not ready and not fit to go to the fight? What does it cost to have about 20 percent … unable to go to the fight because of health care problems? This is the best use of the money we could possibly spend.”

Differences Over Death Benefits

The Senate on July 21 approved by unanimous consent a measure that would broaden eligibility for a retroactive increase in death benefits. Senators want to change the current law to include surviving spouses of all service members who died on active duty since Oct. 7, 2001, the start of combat operations in Afghanistan.

The retroactive payment—an increase in the military death gratuity from $12,400 to $100,000—now applies only for service members who died in war zones or in training for combat or from combat-related conditions. It was included as a temporary measure in the Fiscal 2005 emergency wartime supplemental. (See “Action in Congress: Death Benefits,” June, p. 27.)

Both the Senate and the House want to make the payment increase permanent in the Fiscal 2006 defense bill. However, the House voted, in its version of the bill, to sustain the existing requirement that the death be in combat or combat-related.

The Joint Chiefs had opposed the two-tiered death benefit during testimony in February, but, at that time, Congress made it law in the 2005 supplemental.

During recent debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Carl Levin (R-Mich.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) cited the circumstances of Vivianne Wersel, widow of Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard M. Wersel Jr., who died last winter a week after returning from a second tour in Iraq, from a heart attack while lifting weights in the base gymnasium.

“The fact that he died a week after returning from a second, stressful tour in Iraq should not cause his surviving spouse to receive such a significantly smaller death gratuity,” said Levin.

New Scrutiny of Ex-Spouse Law

Though his comments are unlikely to produce movement on Capitol Hill anytime soon, USAF Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a “town hall” meeting at the Pentagon in June that it’s time to take a new look at the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act.

Myers was responding to an Army officer’s complaint that the 1982 law, which allows state divorce courts to divide military retirement as jointly earned marital property, was forcing her to retire.

Lt. Col. Patricia Larrabee told Myers and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that a court order directs her to pay her ex-husband a share of her retirement when she reaches 20 years of service next year, whether or not she retires. It will have the effect of forcing her out, Larrabee said.

“I can’t afford to write a check to my ex-husband every month out of my military pay,” she told Rumsfeld and Myers. She added that her ex-husband “makes thousands and thousands of dollars more than I do.”

Rumsfeld said he had “never heard” of the USFSPA. Myers had, however. He said the law had been written in an earlier era when military spouses were almost always women and “probably did not work” outside the home.

“It needs to be looked at,” Myers said.

Is It a “Third Rail?”

The Defense Department has already made one run at Congress on this issue. The 2006 defense budget proposal included a request that Congress amend the USFSPA to prohibit court-ordered payments based on the “imputation of retired pay.”

However, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees dropped the proposed change from their versions of the authorization bill.

One Capitol Hill staffer described touching USFSPA as the infamous “third rail” of military personnel politics. Like the difficult issue of trying to change Social Security, he suggested, proposing to change the ex-spouse law brings an avalanche of bitter, emotional claims and counterclaims that smart politicians avoid.

Aiming for Financial Protection

The House has passed the Military Personnel Financial Services Protection Act (HR 458) to shield service personnel and their families from questionable financial products and abusive sales practices, particularly on military installations.

The bill, approved 405-2 on June 28, is similar to a bill the House passed last year but that failed to gain Senate approval. A companion Senate bill (S 418) this year is before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, but it had only seven co-sponsors by late July.

The House measure would clarify regulatory oversight of financial products sold on base and would establish a Defense Department registry of banned agents to be made available to federal and state regulators.

Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) said he introduced the bill to address “a long history” of certain companies and their agents using abusive sales tactics to sell financial products of questionable value to service members.

The Pentagon, he said, has issued directives intended to prevent such abuses, but the sale of harmful insurance and investment products to service members continues for lack of effective communication between government agencies and confusion over regulatory jurisdiction.

Davis said that when he was a young Army officer, he was so impressed by an “infomercial-like presentation” on post that he bought into an investment plan involving insurance and mutual funds.

“It was not until I got out of the Army and into the business world that I discovered how uncompetitive these products were compared with other opportunities. … I knew many soldiers who fell victim to such ‘contractual plans.’ … I did not make the decision because I was a financial expert, because I was not; I made the decision because a retired service member, whom I respected, working as a salesman, presented this, and he was using referrals from other service members whom he convinced it was a good thing.”

The bill would make clear that state insurance regulators have jurisdiction over insurance sales on military bases. It would ban the sale of contractual mutual funds and require that military personnel be informed of government life insurance programs and the military Thrift Savings Plan as part of any pitch to buy private life insurance. It would allow base commanders to ban unscrupulous agents and forward a list of banned agents to DOD where lists would be compiled and sent to state insurance departments for further investigation.

Targeting High-Cost Loans

In another financial protection effort, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) also is pressing colleagues to curb abusive high-interest loan offers to cash-strapped service members and families.

Graves introduced the Servicemembers Anti-Predatory Lending Protection Act, which would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to protect families from costly consumer credit offerings. The bill would:

Prohibit creditors from imposing an annual percentage rate greater than 36 percent on extended consumer credit.

Establish mandatory loan disclosure information, including a statement of annual percentage rate applicable to the extension of credit, and a clear description of the payment obligations.

Prohibit creditors from automatically renewing, repaying, refinancing, or consolidating consumer credit using proceeds of other credit extended to a service member or military dependent. It would mandate executing new loan documentation, signed by the service member and providing the mandatory loan disclosures.

The bill also would set specific criminal penalties for violations of its provisions.

Delay on Authorization Bill

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) failed July 26 to gain the 60 votes required to approve his cloture motion and stop further debate and votes on amendments to the 2006 defense authorization bill. That was a temporary victory for surviving military spouses and disabled retirees who have a stake in several proposals still to be offered.

Frist succeeded, however, in delaying further consideration of the bill and the numerous amendments until September.

Under consideration is one amendment that would move up the effective date of a 30-year paid-up rule for Survivor Benefit Plan premiums and end reductions in SBP payments tied to receipt of VA survivor benefits. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced the legislation, but he surprised proponents by voting with Frist to end further consideration of the defense bill before his measure could be voted on.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who supported Frist’s cloture motion, said critics should know that Nelson, for example, was invited to offer his amendment days earlier, long before the cloture motion came into play, and he declined.

Another delayed amendment, from Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would provide full, immediate concurrent receipt of both military retirement and VA disability compensation to 28,000 military retirees rated as “unemployable” by the VA.