Legislative News is AUSA Government Affairs Directorate's
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.
In this issue:
- Defense Bill Passes Senate
- AUSA Applauds Troop Increase, Seeks 700,000 Active Force Soldiers
- Sergeant Major of the Army: Health Care Most Pressing Issue
- TRICARE offers three different plans to the 9.4 million eligible beneficiaries
Defense Bill Passes Senate
The Senate passed their version of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill last week by a vote of 87-7.
We were pleased that many amendments championed by AUSA and its members were included in the bill. Clearly, the messages you sent to your Senators helped influence their votes on these critical issues.
Sen. Joe Lieberman’s, I-Conn., amendment to increase Army manpower levels by 30,000, starting in fiscal 2010, passed easily. After the vote, Sen. Lieberman said, “This overwhelming vote sends a clear signal to the brave men and women in the Army that help is on the way, and that the Senate is fully committed to easing the strain on our soldiers fighting on our behalf in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."
The Senate’s passage of an amendment which would repeal the requirement for reduction of survivor annuities paid under the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) by veterans' dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) was also welcomed news. Introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., this has been a long-time goal of AUSA’s.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s, D-N.J., measure that was included in the authorization bill was a Sense of the Senate resolution on preventing increases in enrollment fees, premiums and pharmacy co-payments for TRICARE. “We owe our troops and their families the best quality healthcare at affordable prices,” Sen. Lautenberg said. “As our soldiers and sailors remain steadfast in their duty to protect America, it is our duty to provide for them both when they return and when they retire.”
The Senate passed an amendment, introduced by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., that would reduce the Guard/Reserve retirement age by 3 months for each 90 days activated retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s, D-N.Y., legislation that would make it easier for U.S. troops to cast ballots from overseas, easily passed. The bipartisan measure was co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and 54 other senators.
Sen. Barbara Boxer’s, D-Calif., amendment that expressed Congress’s view that the Defense Secretary should use existing authority to implement Flexible Spending Accounts for currently-serving members so they can set aside pre-tax money to pay out-of-pocket health and dependent care expenses was also adopted as was Sen. Richard Burr’s, R-N.C., amendment that would give military spouses the option to elect the same state of domicile as their service member spouse.
Unfortunately, several other amendments were not acted upon, including Sen. Harry Reid’s, D-Nev., concurrent receipt amendments and Sen. Lindsey Graham’s, R-S.C., amendment to authorize a one-year reduction in the reserve retirement age for each two years served beyond the 20-year point.
The proposal to phase out the disability offset for medically retired members, regardless of length of service is still very much alive, though, as it was included in the House bill.
Now that both the House and Senate have passed their bills, members of a conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences between the two versions of the defense bill.
Be assured that AUSA will be lobbying hard to retain the key personnel and compensation provisions in the final bill.
AUSA Applauds Troop Increase, Seeks 700,000 Active Force Soldiers
The Association of the United States Army applauds Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to add 22,000 more soldiers to the active Army force, but remains committed to growing the active force to 700,000.
AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., said, “The secretary correctly was acknowledging the risk in not fully and properly manning our deploying units. Over the past six years, in particular, we have seen the stress on soldiers and their families of repeated deployments.”
“I have talked with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee, about growing and paying for an active force increase of 30,000. The Association thanks him for introducing the end strength increase amendment and for getting it passed. The House Armed Services Committee, under the leadership of Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., has included similar language in its version of the defense authorization bill. These are positive steps.”
Sullivan said the key to adding the 22,000 troops approved by the secretary and the growth to 700,000 soldiers is congressional funding of the expansion without endangering vital Army modernization programs such as manned combat vehicles and resetting and recapitalizing equipment used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We seem to be able to find billions for worthy things like economic stimulus, education, and manufacturing, surely we can find money to fund both personnel and equipment costs for the very entity that protects all else. This is one of the reasons that AUSA long has advocated for a defense budget that is more than 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.”
Sergeant Major of the Army: Health Care Most Pressing Issue
Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth Preston told a key House subcommittee last week that access to quality health care was the most pressing issue for military families and that the root of the problem lies in “finding health care providers who take TRICARE.”
Rep. John Fleming, R-La. and a physician, couldn’t have agreed more. Recalling his own experiences at the hearing of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, Fleming said, “Reimbursement was horrible. Often, we didn’t get it at all.” Because of that many doctors did look at serving TRICARE patients as “charity work.”
Complicating matters now is that on military bases, care is becoming more difficult to receive because of continued deployments of doctors, nurses, medics and counselors, Fleming added.
“That’s the challenge we’ve been dealing with, SMA Preston said. “Many [doctors] were left with a bad taste in their mouth for late payments” in the United States and even slower payments to German health care providers who are treating soldiers’ families stationed there. “There are gaps and seams out there.”
Rep. Fleming told his fellow committee members that doctors ranked payments this way” private insurance was best, then came Medicare, third came Medicaid and lastly TRICARE. “It really comes down to how timely the pay is made and how adequate. There comes a point when you can’t afford it.”
Preston said he sat down with the TRICARE management team and discussed what was done to restructure and streamline the process. Although it has made significant advancement, he said the program still has gaps that need to be fixed.
TRICARE offers three different plans to the 9.4 million eligible beneficiaries
TRICARE Reserve Select is a premium-based plan that qualified Guard and Reserve members can buy. It is similar to TRICARE Standard and TRICARE Extra and charges a monthly premium of $47.51 for the Soldier and $180.17 for the Soldier and Family.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif. said this was the first hearing in 10 years trying to measure the effectiveness of family support programs. "Access to care [from physical to mental] is not sufficient” and said the toll of the repeated and long deployments were being seen in children.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., said the impact on children when both parents are deployed as a very real concern. “Kids are placed all around the country. …They are isolated. …Are we leaving these kids unattended inadvertently” in the dual deployment situation and also in the situation when one parent comes back to the United States seriously wounded.
Also testifying was Art Myers, who works with family support programs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He said, “We’re starting to get behavioral problems [with children] because of all these deployments.”
SMA Preston said the Army was aware of this and it was to be addressed in the Comprehensive Soldiers Fitness Program, unveiled at AUSA’s Medical Symposium held in San Antonio last week. “We’re trying to build resilience for families and into all our schools.” He cited the public school district in El Paso for hiring military spouses to serve as liaisons in the schools for the children.
The experiences of reservists and guardsmen and their families “differ in meaningful ways” from active duty members and families, Col. Cory Lyman, USAF with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs’ office said. “They are community based and dispersed. He added the department is working to “build coalitions of those who can provide support” to these families.
Myers said one of the dangers in the future is that many of these programs are being paid for out of supplemental appropriations. “We have to start moving these programs into the base budget.”
SMA Preston said he was not surprised at the results of a recent survey of military families in which 94 percent of the respondents said they believed the American public did not understand the sacrifices that service members and their families were making in this time of war. “We’re less than 1 percent of the nation” and the wars are “not in the limelight” now.