We Have A Tough Fight On Our Hands 

2/17/2012 12:00 AM 

The 2013 Department of Defense budget proposes benefits changes that affect serving Soldiers and their families in both the active and reserve components as well as military retirees.  I believe these proposals, if approved by Congress, would have enormous negative impact on our military community, and I assure you that AUSA will take that message to Congress forcefully and relentlessly.

One important issue that affects virtually every military retiree is healthcare.  My belief is that there is a subtle undercurrent woven into proposed changes in retiree healthcare that retirees are essentially civilians – no longer part of the fabric of our military forces. Nothing could be further from the truth.  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 needs to be 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 has landed on Capitol Hill with what appears to be a huge bull’s-eye painted directly on military benefits. 

From my vantage point the proposals are, in most cases, over the top.  When the healthcare adjustments are combined, the long-term financial implications result in a considerable reduction in compensation.  These proposals are reminiscent of similar ones several years ago that went nowhere because of the potentially dramatic impact on people’s lives without the open discussion so vital to the democratic process. 

It appears that the extraordinary sacrifices that military personnel and their families make for our nation are not enough.  Military retirees will now be asked to pay upwards of $13 billion in additional heathcare costs over the next five years in the form of dramatically increased TRICARE Prime annual enrollment fees, new TRICARE Standard enrollment fees, a new TRICARE for Life enrollment fee and pharmacy copays that will more than double, not to mention that after 2016 the increases will be tied to medical inflation not the cost of living index.

This budget proposal is a “gift that keeps on giving.”  While the healthcare cost increases begin now, the document also proposes 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.  For a system with such an enormous impact on long-term military retention and readiness, circumventing the congressional vetting process is a troublesome prospect.  In this regard, AUSA and like-minded organizations must be a part of the dialogue and process.

Further, 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 is engaged in this fight.  I have sent a letter to all 540 members of Congress urging them to reject the health care fee increases.  (link to letter)  Previously, I wrote to President Obama twice, House and Senate leaders twice, and House and Senate Army veterans explaining that the extraordinary sacrifices that military personnel and their families make for our nation must be honored with a substantial and predictable benefits package.

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”.

Now that we have the details of the budget proposal, it is important that the Congress and the President hear from those who are affected by their actions at the “grassroots” level – the people whose lives are dramatically affected by changes that to some seem reasonable, but which, in reality, are shortchanging a constituency that is trained to serve and sacrifice rather than complain.

Now is the time to speak out, and AUSA is doing so.  Add your voice to ours. 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.