Congress making extra effort

Tom Philpott

The more difficult U.S. operations become in Iraq, the more conscientious Congress becomes in addressing weaknesses and inequities in military pay and benefits programs — or so it seems.
Three days after insurgents downed an Army helicopter, killing 15 U.S. soldiers and injuring 21, Congress passed tax relief legislation for military families. Two days earlier, as part of an $87 billion supplemental bill for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq, Congress also voted to:
> Extend wartime improvements in Family Separation Allowances and Imminent Danger Pay (IDP) through September next year.
> Improve health care benefits to both mobilized reservists and National Guard personnel and to drilling reservists who are otherwise unemployed or without employer-sponsored health insurance.
Highlights of the Military Family Tax Relief Act of 2003 (H.R. 3365) include:
RESERVE TRAVEL DEDUCTIONS — Drilling reservists and Guard members will be able to claim as tax deductions any unreimbursed costs for meals, lodging and transportation when on duty, and staying overnight, more than 100 miles from home.
DEATH GRATUITY — The military’s $6,000 gratuity to survivors is raised to $12,000, and all of it — not just half — is tax free.
TAX-FREE “HAP” — Under the Homeowner’s Assistance Program, service members are reimbursed for declines in home values from base closings and realignments. Future payments will be tax exempt.
RESERVE HEALTH BENEFITS — Senators also led the full Congress, over administration objections, to open TRICARE to some reserve forces on a one-year test basis. Language in the $87 billion Iraq supplemental:
> Allows drilling reservists who lack employer-sponsored health insurance to buy into TRICARE with premiums set at 28 percent of cost, or roughly $420 for individual coverage, $1,450 for family.
> Makes reserve and Guard members eligible for military health care from the moment they receive mobilization orders, and eligible to keep TRICARE coverage for up to six months after mobilization.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111.