The Fight Continues 

6/12/2012 12:00 AM 

Folks, we have what appears to be a partial victory in the military health care arena as both the House and Senate Defense Authorization legislation allow TRICARE fee increases only at the rate of inflation – not at the hugely inflated rates that the Department of Defense proposed in its 2013 budget. Further, no new TRICARE fees were authorized.

As I have said repeatedly, I believe these proposals, had they been approved by Congress, would have enormous negative impact on our military community, and AUSA took that message to Congress forcefully and relentlessly.

We made clear that the perceived subtle undercurrent woven into proposed changes in retiree healthcare that retirees are essentially civilians – no longer part of the fabric of our military forces – was wrong.  Retired military personnel are subject to recall to active duty.  Retired military personnel are often the nation’s best recruiters – urging family members and friends to follow in their footsteps.  Retired military personnel volunteer countless hours to man USO posts at airports and unpaid positions on military posts.  They remain an essential part of our nation’s military culture.

Our voice was loud and clear. Soldiers and military retirees are not civilians.  Soldiers and military retirees did not cause the nation’s financial crisis, and diminishing the value of their benefits cannot be the solution to that crisis.  Yet the defense budget landed on Capitol Hill with what appeared to be a huge bull’s-eye painted directly on military benefits. 

While apparently we moved the bull’s-eye off dead center, there is still much to be done.  Pharmacy copay increases that would double are still in the Senate version of the Defense Authorization legislation.  Further, the Senate version authorizes a special commission that would recommend changes in the military retirement system for future military personnel with expedited consideration to limit debate time and without congressional amendment authority.  AUSA believes that for a system with such an enormous impact on long-term military retention and readiness, circumventing the congressional vetting process is a troublesome prospect.

I have mentioned in previous columns that the budget proposal goes after active duty pay. In 2015 and beyond, annual pay raises would be below the private sector pay growth rate.  AUSA has spent the last 12 years fighting to close a pay gap that had grown to 14 percent due to years of sub-inflation pay increases in the 80s and 90s.  Recruitment and retention suffered enormously, and today’s retirees receive far less in retired pay than they should because of those depressed pay scales.   AUSA does not want today’s Soldiers to face that same fate.

AUSA remains engaged in this fight.  The letters I sent to all 540 members of Congress urging them to reject the health care fee increases clearly had the desired effect.  (link to letter)  The letters I wrote to President Obama twice, House and Senate leaders twice, and House and Senate Army veterans explaining that the extraordinary sacrifices military personnel and their families make for our nation must be honored with a substantial and predictable benefits package stand as a mark in the sand.

We have sent a Torchbearer Alert  (document ) outlining the need for Congress to protect benefits for military retirees to every member of Congress and a Torchbearer Issue Paper (document ) on military retiree health care to key staff members in each congressional office and to key professional staff members in defense-related congressional committees.  I urge you to read these documents to help familiarize yourself with arguments that rebut the concept that military retiree benefits are “overly generous”.

Your actions at the “grassroots” level – has increased awareness dramatically that changes which to some seem reasonable, in reality, are shortchanging a constituency that is trained to serve and sacrifice rather than complain.

So continue to speak out. Let those who will decide whether to reduce your benefits know how such action would affect you.  After all, Soldiers are the essence of the Army.

 I have said time and again that military personnel are not a faceless group, and they are not civilians – they are the one percent of this nation’s population that are willing to carry our colors into battle and to offer up their life in the process.  When they retire from the front line, they should be given the respect and dignity of a reliable benefits package.

CLICK HERE to contact your members of Congress.  Enter your zip code in the box titled “Elected Officials” and then click on the prepared letters concerning health care and retirement benefits.