Raise, ‘Wellness’ plan get OK

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

Military members will get a 3.9 percent pay raise in January. But the fiscal 2009 defense authorization approved by Congress on Saturday does not include a House-passed plan to set military pay raises through 2013 a half percentage point higher than private sector wage growth.

The new defense bill will protect working-age military retirees from a final try by the Bush administration to raise TRICARE fees, deductibles and drug co-payments. Instead, beneficiaries of every age will see new enticements to stay healthy through no-fee check-ups, age-appropriate disease screening, smoking cessation help and other “wellness” programs.

And, for a fourth straight year, the full Congress will not adopt a Senate-passed plan to restore full Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments to 55,000 widows who see them reduced, dollar for dollar, by Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Congressional leaders, dealing with a financial crisis and re-election campaigns, had shelved a traditional method of negotiating differences between House and Senate versions of the bill.

In years past, chairmen and ranking members of the armed services committees nominated lawmakers to serve on a conference committee, which then ironed out any House-Senate disparities to shape a final compromise. Conferee appointments were made by unanimous consent.

This year, fiscal conservative Senate Republicans, frustrated in their attempt to remove defense bill earmarks, opposed the consent agreement and blocked formation of a conference committee.

So bill managers decided on another course. House leaders took the Senate-passed bill (S 3001) and added provisions unique to the House bill. Items that stayed in or got tossed had been worked out informally between the armed services committees.

Here are some personnel-related highlights in the bill:

PAY RAISE — The 3.9 percent increase for active duty members, reserve component personnel and academy cadets will be the 10th consecutive raise to exceed private sector wage growth by 0.5 percent.

FORCE STRENGTH — Army’s active force will climb by 7,000 soldiers to reach 534,200 a year from now. The Marine Corps will gain 5,000 to reach 194,000. Air Force strength will fall by 12,513 to hit 317,050. The Navy will shed 2,775 sailors to slide down to 326,323.

PREVENTIVE CARE — The bill embraces a four-part House plan for lowering TRICARE costs by encouraging health screens and healthier lives:

CHIROPRACTIC HEALTH — Chiropractic services will be provided to deployed services members under a demonstration program. Also, by Sept. 30, 2009, chiropractic services will be offered to active duty members at 11 additional military treatment facilities where there is none now.

TRICARE RESERVE SELECT — Premiums paid by drilling reservists and families for TRS coverage will be lowered in 2009 to match actual program costs. Premiums for member-only coverage should fall to about $47 a month from $81. Family coverage premiums should fall from $253 down to $175.

LODGING EXPENSE — Military travelers will see maximum temporary lodging expense (TLE) reimbursements raised to $290 per day from $180.

SPOUSE EMPLOYMENT — The Defense Department will be authorized to pay tuition assistance to spouses of active duty service members for education and training programs that expand their job opportunities.

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