Monday, May 02, 2016
Larger pay raise for troops?  "The department’s proposal that would continue to suppress military pay raises misses the mark," according to Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee during a recent hearing.

"For the last three years, this administration has failed to allow service members’ pay to keep up with private-sector wage growth. This is the fourth year in a row where the department is shortchanging service members," Graham said.

Graham’s remarks mirror those of Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

While Graham stopped short of promising a larger pay raise than the 1.6 percent included in the administration’s budget request, his remarks did suggest that lawmakers would look for ways to provide a bigger pay boost.

AUSA worked tirelessly for more than a decade to close the pay gap.

As a result, Congress enacted statutory language explicitly tying annual military raises to those in the private sector, as measured by the Employment Cost Index (ECI).

Should the proposed 1.6 percent pay raise become law, it will reflect a 5.5 percent gap between military pay raises and the ECI, resurrecting the pay gap. It should be noted, however, that Congress has the final say on military pay raises, not the administration.

Military health care topic at Hill hearing. "Military professionals earn unique long-term benefits we call deferred compensation for risk and hardship endured during their careers. This deferred compensation includes lifetime access to quality health care," Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, USA, Ret., told lawmakers.

Preston serves as AUSA’s director of noncommissioned officer and soldier programs.

Preston and leaders from other top military associations were invited by the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee to present their views on the military health care reform proposals contained in the Defense Department’s fiscal 2017 budget request.

If passed by Congress, DoD’s request would:

Reorganize the current military healthcare system into two health care alternatives: TRICARE Select (currently TRICARE Prime) and TRICARE Choice (currently TRICARE Standard)

Increase fees for TRICARE Select

Establish enrollment fees for TRICARE Choice and TRICARE For Life (TFL). TFL fees would be means tested.

Establish an open season enrollment system that would require beneficiaries to enroll for a 1-year period of coverage or lose the opportunity

Increase catastrophic caps

Index fees and copays to medical inflation as opposed to the percentage growth in military retired pay

Increase pharmacy copays

"AUSA understands the Department of Defense’s concern about rising health care costs," said Preston’s written statement to the subcommittee.

Adding, "However, we believe they have many additional options to constrain the growth of health care spending in ways that do not disadvantage beneficiaries. They should first pursue these alternative options and reduce inefficiencies, rather than seek large fee increases or marginalize the benefit for beneficiaries."

He noted, "All of the proposed changes hits retired soldiers the hardest, especially those under 65. The DoD plan imposes enrollment fees for that population regardless of which program they choose. It is important to remember that today’s soldiers are tomorrow’s retired soldiers.

"They observe and receive advice from those that served their country before them. Therefore, the quality of life after retirement indirectly but powerfully affects the readiness of tomorrow’s force by influencing the retention and recruiting of younger generations."

In today’s complex and unpredictable operating environment, demand for Army forces is high and requires a commensurate level of readiness.

The Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, has made it clear that his top priority is increasing the readiness of the force.

However, budgetary pressures – reduced funding associated with the Budget Control Act of 2011, coupled with the uncertainty of future funding – have forced senior leaders to have to make difficult choices between the different components of readiness – people, training, equipping and leadership development.

"This trend has already had significant impacts across the force and, if not reversed, will significantly affect the most basic component of readiness for decades to come – the people of the All-Volunteer Force.

"The military will not be able to provide an adequate quality of life, degrading its ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest, further depriving the nation of the ready forces it needs to fight and win, now and in the future," Preston said.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are conducting in-depth studies of the current military health care system looking for ways to improve patient care and streamline the bureaucratic structure.

Both committees have stressed that TRICARE reform is not just about raising fees.

New legislation would return tax money to combat-injured veterans. "The intent of Congress, federal law and Department of Defense policy are all very clear: Service members separated as a result of combat-related injuries are not to have their severance pay taxed. It’s unbelievable that Congress has to act in order to ensure that the law is followed and that veterans who have already sacrificed so much receive every penny of their severance," said Sen. Mark Warner, R-Va.

Warner was discussing the details of a bill he and fellow senator, John Boozman, R-Ark., introduced that would ensure veterans who suffer service-ending combat-related injuries are not improperly taxed on the severance payment they receive from the Department of Defense (DoD).

By law, the one-time lump sum disability severance payment qualifying veterans receive should be tax free.

However, because of a glitch in DoD’s automated payment system, taxes were taken out. Even more disturbing is the fact that DoD has been aware of the accounting problem since 1991.

Many veterans were unaware that their benefits had been improperly reduced as a result of DoD’s actions and, those that were aware, were met with shrugs from the government.

Warner and Boozman’s legislation, The Combat-Injured Veterans Tax Fairness Act of 2016, corrects the problem by directing DoD to identify the affected veterans, instructs them to determine how much they are owed and allows veterans to recover the withheld amounts.

The bill is retroactive: it will cover all those who have been medically separated with combat-related disabilities back to 1991, allowing them to file amended tax returns despite IRS rules which only allow for an amended tax return to be filed within three years.

A joint press release issued by Warner and Boozman provided specific examples from affected veterans. One said that the government withheld more than $11,000 from his disability severance check and another said the amount withheld from his severance was $8,000.

It is estimated that over 13,800 veterans have been affected with the amount of money withheld totaling approximately $78 million.