Raises, benefits top committee agenda

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Billions of dollars in pay and benefits are at stake for active duty members, reservists, disabled retirees and surviving spouses as a House-Senate conference committee begins to negotiate differences in separate versions of the 2007 defense authorization bill.

When the process ends, perhaps by late September, military personnel will know the size of their next pay raise; drilling reservists will know if all of them have access to a low-premium health plan; mobilized reservists will know if their GI Bill benefits can be used after they leave service; and users of retail pharmacies will know if military co-payments have increased.

All of these issues are still unresolved.

The Senate passed its 2007 defense authorization bill (S 2766) June 22, after approving a surprising number of floor amendments to help reserve component personnel and as well as some disabled retirees.
The House had approved its bill (HR 5122) weeks earlier, but without some of the false drama of some of the Senate votes — false in the sense that many Senate amendments to help military constituents are, in fact, unfunded and therefore unlikely to survive negotiations with the House.

Conferees shaping a final authorization bill will know what money is available for some of these personnel only after the Senate passes its defense appropriations bill and reconciles that funding with House appropriations.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the armed services committee, chairs the authorization conference which began work last week. Key personnel issues to be resolved include:

2007 pay raise — The House endorsed a 2.7 percent basic pay increase for next January, which would be the seventh consecutive annual raise set a half percentage point above private sector wage growth. The Senate accepted the Bush administration’s call for a 2.2 percent increase. That also matches the figure in the House-passed defense appropriations bill, which could make it difficult for House conferees to defend their bigger pay raise.

The House and Senate bills support the administration’s call for a special targeted raise in April 2007 for warrant officers and for longer-serving enlisted members in pay grades E-5 through E-7.

Reserve Tricare — The House would open a TRICARE Standard-like health benefit to all drilling reservists willing to pay premiums set at 28 percent of program costs. The Senate voted merely to improve two of three higher premium tiers approved last year for the TRICARE Reserve Select (TRS) plan. The higher cost of the House plan, about $1 billion a year, makes the more modest Senate plan a likely choice for conferees. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., drafted the plan, which would broaden TRS eligibility and lower some premium.

Under TRS, Reserve and Guard members who complete post-9/11 deployments can enroll in a TRICARE Standard-like program if they pay premiums set at 28 percent of costs plus usual deductibles and fees. Last year, Congress set two new premium tiers, opening TRS to any drilling reservist willing to pay them. Regulations to implement three-tier TRS are still being prepared even as the Senate presses for more changes.

The second tier is for reservists who lack alternative health insurance because they are unemployed, self-employed or work in jobs with no health benefits. They will be able to enroll soon in TRS with premiums set at 50 percent of program costs. The Senate this year wants to broaden eligibility for this second-tier to reservists in businesses with 20 or fewer employees.

The third tier of TRS is for reservists who have alternative health coverage but choose not to use it. Their premiums are to be 85 percent of program costs. The Senate this year seeks to lower that to 75 percent.
Reserve retirement — The Senate voted to lower the age-60 start of retirement benefits for Reserve and Guard members activated since September 2001. The Senate plan, from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., would start retire pay and benefits sooner by three months for every 90 days of activation. Thus, a Guardsman called up for a year could retire at 59. The Senate adopted a similar Chambliss amendment last year. It fell out in final negotiations because it wasn’t funded. The House would leave reserve retirement unchanged.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: milupdate@aol.com