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Defense policy bill: Increases in Army pay, end strength

Monday, November 20, 2017

Increases in pay and Army end strength were just a couple of items AUSA cheered as Congress approved the conference report for the fiscal 2018 defense policy bill.

The Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes $692.1 billion for the Defense Department which includes $626.4 billion for the base budget ($26.4 billion more than the president’s budget request) and $65.7 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations accounts which are not subject to budget caps.

The $626.4 billion base budget is $77.3 billion more than would be permitted for defense spending in FY18 by the 2011 Budget Control Act, something lawmakers still have to work out.

AUSA supported an increase in the Army’s end strength.

In a recent op-ed, retired Gen. Carter F. Ham, AUSA president and CEO, said, “We are calling for a bigger Army so that units can be fully manned and soldiers get more time to train, more time for professional development and even a bit more time to be with family and friends.”

In response, the NDAA increases the Regular Army personnel ranks by 7,500; the Army National Guard by 500 and the Army Reserve by 500. The administration had not asked for any end-strength increase for 2018.

Ham and AUSA also called for Congress to provide military personnel with a higher pay raise than the 2.1 percent requested by the administration.

By law, basic pay for military personnel is automatically increased at the start of each calendar year by an amount linked to the change in the Employment Cost Index (ECI). For 2018, the pay raise for military personnel should be 2.4 percent.

Ham said, “You may think, ‘Well 2.1 percent vs. the 2.4 percent to which they are entitled isn’t really all that much.’ But, when combined with below ECI raises in past years, with reduced allowances for housing and other decisions that affect not only total compensation, but the services which our service members and their families deserve, this is a bad trend. Congress – do your job. Pay service members what the law says. 2.4 percent is the bottom line.”

Congress agreed and authorized the 2.4 percent pay raise, the largest increase since 2010.

For the past two years, the Senate’s version of the NDAA contained a provision that would have eliminated the with-dependents rate for the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) in the case of married members of the uniformed services who are collocated and who have dependents.

AUSA was strongly opposed to the provision. Conferees agreed and the final bill rejected the Senate’s provision.

The Senate’s bill contained a provision that would have consolidated cost-sharing requirements under TRICARE Prime and Select.

This provision would have eliminated the grandfathering of cost-sharing requirements for beneficiaries enrolled in the TRICARE program prior to Jan. 1, 2018, as authorized in the FY17 NDAA. The House bill contained no similar provision. We supported the House version. The final bill did not include the provision.

However, conferees voiced their concern over several unintended consequences resulting from provisions contained in the fiscal 2017 NDAA which exempted current beneficiaries (“grandfathered” beneficiaries) from the requirement to pay an annual enrollment fee as required by the provision.

This law resulted in different cost sharing requirements for “grandfathered” and “non-grandfathered” beneficiaries receiving the same TRICARE benefit.

Conferees said that they are concerned that disparate copayments for care will create confusion for health care providers who will have to assess different copayments for each category of beneficiary, as well as unnecessary infrastructure for the Department of Defense (DoD) to maintain two different healthcare benefits.

The conferees recognize the desirability of creating a single health benefit structure for all beneficiary categories, which would reduce DoD’s burden of implementing and maintaining two separate health benefits over several decades in the future.

Does this mean higher TRICARE fees for all beneficiaries in the future? AUSA will continue to closely monitor this.

The bill also agreed to several other AUSA-supported goals such as:

  • The Senate’s provision allowing hospice care coverage for children also receiving curative care. Medicare rules currently prohibit TRICARE coverage of hospice care services for children receiving curative healthcare treatments.
  • Authorization for reserve component members activated under the authority provided by either section 12304a or 12304b of Title 10, United States Code, to receive pre-mobilization and transitional TRICARE health care.
  • A requirement mandating that the Boards for the Correction of Military Records review medical evidence of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and civilian health care providers in cases in which the claim is based on matters relating to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) that is related to combat or military sexual trauma.

The provision would also require the Boards to review the claim with liberal consideration to the claimant that PTSD or TBI potentially contributed to the circumstances resulting in the discharge or dismissal or to the original characterization of the claimant’s discharge or dismissal.

Since October 2008, surviving spouses whose Survivor Benefit Plan payments have been offset (partially or totally) as a result of receiving Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, including surviving spouses of members who died while serving on active duty, are eligible for Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA). That program was set to expire.

AUSA is pleased that conferees agreed to permanently extend the SSIA under the Survivor Benefit Plan and provide for annual inflation adjustments. We are not pleased about how they chose to pay for the continuance of the program – increased pharmacy co-payments.

It’s important to remember that the NDAA is the authorizing bill.

One thing still missing is an adequate and predictable defense budget. The policy bill authorizes funds for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, but Congress has not passed appropriations to provide that funding.

ALERT!! Changes ahead with your TRICARE benefit

There are significant changes coming to your TRICARE benefit and you should take action now.

On Jan. 1, 2018, there are several changes coming to the TRICARE benefit including a change to the current TRICARE regions.

The current three regions (North, South and West) will become two regions (East and West). Humana Military will manage the East Region and Health Net Federal Services, LLC, will manage the West region.

In preparation for this change, enrollments in TRICARE health plans will be delayed while beneficiary files are transferred to the incoming regional contractors. The delay period, or an enrollment freeze, will begin on Dec. 1, 2017 and last approximately three weeks, or until the data transfer is complete.

“You’ll still have access to care during the enrollment freeze,” said Mark Ellis, senior health program analyst for TRICARE at the Defense Health Agency. “However, if you wish to make changes to your TRICARE coverage, I encourage you to do so as soon as possible.”

If you would like to switch to a different TRICARE health plan, or enroll in a plan for the first time, take action before Nov. 20, 2017. You can enroll in certain TRICARE plans online, by phone or by mail.

Learn about how to enroll in or purchase a health plan on the TRICARE website, www.tricare.mil.

Also on Jan. 1, 2018, the current TRICARE Standard and Extra will be combined into one plan: TRICARE Select. You don’t have to enroll in TRICARE Select if you’re a TRICARE Standard beneficiary as of Nov. 30, 2017.

You’ll be automatically converted to TRICARE Select on Jan. 1, as long as you’re registered in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) and are eligible for TRICARE.

For more information about TRICARE Select, click on this link or visit https://tricare.mil/About/Changes/Select.

Beginning Nov. 20, 2017, you will not be able to use the Beneficiary Web Enrollment (BWE) website to enroll in or dis-enroll from TRICARE Prime options and select or change primary care managers.

Additionally, eligible beneficiaries will not be able to use BWE to enroll in TRICARE Young Adult (TYA) or TRICARE dental options. While the BWE website is unavailable, regional contractors will accept enrollment applications through other communications channels (for example, phone and mail).

Regional contractors will process these applications once the freeze is complete. Visit www.tricare.mil/changes/enroll to find instructions on how to submit TRICARE enrollment forms during the enrollment freeze.

You will still have access to care during the enrollment freeze. Save your pharmacy and other health care receipts while your enrollment is pending, so that you can get reimbursed for TRICARE covered expenses once the freeze is complete and your enrollment is processed.

If you have a problem accessing care while your enrollment is pending, contact your regional contractor. If you have a problem getting your medications while your enrollment is pending, contact Express Scripts.

Take command of your health care and prepare for the upcoming changes to TRICARE:

  • Update your personal information in DEERS
  • Make sure you have a current DS Logon
  • Sign up for eCorrespondence in milConnect
  • Sign up for TRICARE benefit updates