Department of Defense actuaries have discovered significantly higher mortality rates among active duty retirees compared to reserve retirees, and the disparity stretches back decades.
In any given year, looking at populations of non-disabled military retirees age 60 and older, the death rate for active duty enlisted retirees is 20 to 25 percent higher than for reserve enlisted retirees. Active duty officer retirees who are 60 and older die in numbers roughly 10 percent higher than retired reserve peers.
All retired officers, and retired reserve enlisted members, still live a few years longer, on average, than the general population. But for retired active duty enlisted, it’s about even with other Americans.
Defense officials haven’t done a study to explain death rate differences among military retirees. Speculation centers on stresses of full time service including past wars, frequent moves, constant physical activity to stay in shape, and stress-induced habits such as smoking and alcohol consumption.
Another possible factor, one official acknowledged, is active duty retirees rely for decades on military health care. That’s not a knock on the care but on the fact that patients and doctors are reassigned frequently and continuity of care can suffer compared to what reservists experience.
The mortality rate differences were revealed during a DoD Board of Actuaries meeting last August. They were presented to support a recommendation that retirement cost projections should begin to use dual mortality rates, one for active duty retirees and a lower rate for reserves.
The board accepted the change. But one board member was unnerved by the finding of different mortality rates in the military retiree population.
“Are you startled by this? I was,” John Hartnedy told fellow board members and policy advisers at the meeting, according to a transcript. Later that day, after more board business, Hartnedy reopened the issue.
“I just can’t get this mortality difference out of my head,” he said, calling higher death rates for active duty retirees “very troublesome.”
“Is there something out there that we can do, or that we can look at, to maybe explain this a little bit?” Hartnedy asked. It “just troubles me to no end that our active life military retirees are dying off at a rate like that.”
Peter Rossi, one of the DoD actuaries who compiled and analyzed the numbers, was there last August to share results with the board. In several recent phone interviews, Rossi has explained what he and colleagues found.
They looked back to the mid-1970s in calculating mortality rates for non-disabled reserve retirees, who retire at age 60, and active duty retirees. Though active duty members can retire after 20 years, only deaths of retirees 60 and older were used to make rate comparisons with reserves.
Controlling for gender differences and also for whether retirees are rated as disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the actuaries still found sharp differences in death rates, particularly between enlisted retirees.
In fiscal years 2004 and 2005, for example, the proportion of deaths reported among active duty officer retirees, 60 and older, was 10 percent higher than for reserve officer retirees. The rate difference was 22 percent for active duty enlisted retirees versus enlisted reserve retirees.
“The 22 (percent) gets you into a range where you really start to raise eyebrows,” said Jack Luff, experience studies actuary at Society of Actuaries’ headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill. “That’s worth looking into further because it’s more than you would expect.”
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com