OUR MISSION: “TAKING CARE OF THE TROOPS“
* Supporting Positive Federal and State Military Legislation
* Supporting Central Ohio Troops at Home and Deployed.
MOAA’s Goals for 2017
Once again, sequestration; military health care, retirement, and pay; force levels for the services; and wounded warriors and caregivers top MOAA’s legislative goals list.
As the 115th Congress takes shape, there are many reasons to head to Capitol Hill – not only to meet new legislators and their staffs but also to express our appreciation to staunch MOAA supporters. We welcome 52 new representatives and seven new senators, three of whom are former representatives. We look forward to sitting down with Congress to ensure constructive and transparent efforts toward achieving our 2017 goals.
One major priority is to make a concerted effort to end sequestration. Significant cuts to the defense budget already have directly affected compensation and benefits. Military service is a calling, but for some, its appeal is fading. MOAA’s focus is on ending sequestration, supporting troops and their families, increasing force levels to match demand, and convincing legislators we are on the wrong road and need their leadership to find a better way forward.
Constraining access to funds hurts government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, federal civilian pay and retirement, COLAs, and virtually everything else the government spends money on. Convincing individual legislators to support MOAA’s initiatives is one aspect of our task; getting the collective committees to align with our efforts is another. Beating competitors to the funding trough is even more difficult.
Stay focused on these priorities at home and at the national level. MOAA will need all hands to make a difference in 2017.
The remainder of this column provides a summary of key MOAA legislative objectives for 2017. To help fulfill these objectives, we strongly urge you to subscribe to MOAA’s e-newsletters. Call (800) 234-MOAA (6622) or visit moaa.org/email to subscribe.
Fund people and weapons
MOAA believes strongly that maintaining military manpower, replacing and upgrading weapons and equipment worn out by years of war, and treating military people fairly are not mutually exclusive.
Addressing the nation’s debt is a priority, and all Americans must be prepared to share the sacrifices required to accomplish it. But a nation still in conflict must meet funding needs for both people and weapons, rather than sacrificing one for the other.
Arbitrary sequestration cuts will force service planners to impose even steeper force-reduction efforts in the midst of ongoing military operations. This threatens the nation’s ability to respond to threats and places the burden of these operations on the shoulders of the remaining troops and families. The recent two-year budget agreement does not fix the problem; it only defers it.
To the extent force cuts require separation of members with lengthy service, MOAA supports the use of early retirement authority and enhanced voluntary separation incentives to more fairly recognize the extended service and sacrifice of these servicemembers.
Health Care Issues
Congress has mandated sweeping changes to the Military Health System with the objective of enhancing readiness and supporting beneficiary care. Throughout the process, MOAA will stay engaged to ensure any problems with TRICARE or military treatment facilities are addressed in a systemic manner, effective programs are sustained, and collective efforts remain focused on improving care, coverage, and readiness.
Sustain TRICARE/TRICARE For Life (TFL)
MOAA will maintain and improve benefit consistency for all beneficiary groups, with the following objectives:
Oppose any enrollment fee for TFL. When TFL was enacted, Congress expressly indicated servicemembers’ decades of service and sacrifice, in addition to Part B enrollment, constituted their proper premium.
Oppose initiatives to dramatically limit coverage by Medicare supplement policies, including TFL.
Ensure new Medicare-provider payment mechanisms, which reward value and outcomes, continue to provide beneficiaries with good access to care.
Ensure timely access to the full range of mental health services for servicemembers and their families and caregivers. Seek increased oversight and funding to ensure improved joint DoD and VA effort.
Promote beneficiary-friendly initiatives to reduce long-term military health care costs, such as expanded incentives for all beneficiaries (including Medicare-eligibles) to pursue healthy lifestyles and follow prescribed regimens for chronic conditions.
Increase access to civilian providers by reducing administrative deterrents to participation, attracting more providers to participate in TRICARE Standard, and ensuring assistance for Standard beneficiaries who need help finding TRICARE-participating providers.
Eliminate preauthorization and referral hassles and other administrative inconveniences to promote doctor participation in TRICARE and improve beneficiary access.
Work closely with DoD and TRICARE contractors to ensure Prime access standards are met and appointment, specialty-care authorization, and referral processes are upgraded to meet beneficiary needs.
Reinstate TRICARE benefits for remarried survivors when their second marriage ends. The Veterans Benefits Act of 2002 restored similar VA benefits for survivors of veterans who died of service-connected causes. Military survivors deserve the same consideration.
Upgrade programs and ensure improved DoD policy and implementation for families with special-needs children.
Bar disproportionate TRICARE fee hikes
MOAA insists a unique military health care plan is an essential offset to the arduous conditions inherent in a military career. Any fee-adjustment formula must recognize military beneficiaries prepay very large premiums for their lifetime coverage through decades of service and sacrifice, and the country must have a higher obligation to them than corporate employers demonstrate for their active and retired employees. To that end, any percentage increase in military beneficiaries’ health care fees in any year should not exceed the percentage increase in their military compensation.
MOAA adamantly will resist proposals to make military health care programs more like those offered by civilian employers that would add thousands of dollars a year to military beneficiaries’ costs.
Oppose health care means-testing
MOAA will oppose proposals to base military health care fees on grade, retired pay, or income. Virtually no civilian or federal employee health care plans entail such a concept, which directly violates the principle that health care coverage is a service-earned benefit provided equally to all full-time employees and equally to all who qualify for retired pay.
Safeguard wounded warriors and families/caregivers
Providing care and support for wounded warriors and their families and caregivers remains a high priority. MOAA will continue to press to improve DoD and VA health and benefit systems to provide seamless integration of care and services to this population.
The 15 years of war and conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a significant number of seriously wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers – almost 53,000 wounded in action, hundreds of thousands with service-connected conditions, and increasing numbers of individuals with unspecified or long-term/latent illnesses such as catastrophic or late-stage diseases and cancers or environmental exposures.
A RAND Corp. study found military caregivers consistently experience worse health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships, and more workplace problems than non-caregivers, with post-9/11 caregivers experiencing the worst in these areas. Of the nation’s 5.5 million caregivers, 1.1 million, or 19.6 percent, care for post-9/11 veterans. Nearly 40 percent of these caregivers are under the age of 30 and caring for a younger individual with mental health or substance abuse concerns. They are likely to use mental health resources and services more frequently. These caregivers provide an estimated $3 billion a year in services.
Improvements to respite care, employment accommodations, financial services, and access to health care and benefits are a priority for caregivers of all eras. To ensure equity in support services and benefits, MOAA believes full-time pre-9/11 caregivers of severely disabled veterans must be included in the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010.
DoD and the VA continue to make progress toward increasing the number of behavioral health care providers, but timely access to qualified, appropriate mental health intervention and treatment remains a difficult challenge in both health systems. The shortage of mental health care providers results in increased referrals to civilian providers, many of whom have little knowledge or understanding of military culture and the unique needs of military families. Specialized training and military cultural awareness programs should be expanded for community providers to improve system efficiency and health outcomes for servicemembers and veterans and their families.
We must continue to preserve and protect the health and well-being of the all-volunteer force and those who have worn the uniform. DoD and the VA must have viable and effective health and benefit systems that address not just physical conditions but also mental and emotional issues. Senior leaders must strengthen and reinforce efforts to establish a command climate that eliminates stigmas associated with seeking mental health care. Establishing a culture that integrates physical and mental wellness is central to eliminating stigma and honors our military and veterans and their families.
Guard/Reserve health care
MOAA will seek enactment of legislation to correct inequities and gaps in subsidized coverage for guardmembers and reservists and their families, including “gray area” retirees who have not yet reached age 60.
• Provide members of the Selected Reserve the option of having the government subsidize continuation of civilian health care coverage during call-ups – just as the government already provides up to 24 months of Federal Employee Health Benefits Program premium coverage for activated federal workers.
• Consider revamping and consolidating all Guard and Reserve health care programs under a single, more equitable umbrella to improve consistency and continuity of coverage as these members move to and from active duty and age through current eligibility categories.
TRICARE for children
MOAA seeks to ensure any TRICARE reforms include a uniform definition of “medical necessity” and align the benefit with best practices of organizations that specialize in pediatrics, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. Current TRICARE policies can leave military children behind for services unique to their pediatric health needs that aren’t reflected in Medicare reimbursement policies.
MOAA will work with DoD and Congress to maintain a comprehensive uniform pharmacy benefit, with a robust formulary that preserves beneficiary options to obtain specific pharmaceuticals determined necessary by their providers; promote positive incentives that save money for both beneficiaries and the government; and strive to maximize beneficiary choice, minimize beneficiary costs, and help educate beneficiaries and providers to make the best use of various TRICARE pharmacy options.
Access to VA health care
After reports of secret waiting lists at the VA medical center in Phoenix, the president established an independent commission to make immediate and long-range systemic changes necessary to provide the best quality care and support services to servicemembers and veterans and their families. The federally directed Commission on Care issued its final report June 30, 2016.
A statement by the cochair of the commission provides a compelling reason for why immediate reform is needed:
The systemic problems in staffing, information technology, procurement and other core functions threaten the long-term viability of VA’s health care system. … No single factor can explain the multiple systemic problems that have frustrated VA efforts to provide veterans consistent timely access to care. Governance challenges, failures of leadership, and statutory and funding constraints all have played a role.
Overall, MOAA supports the commission’s findings, and we are pleased to see many of the report’s recommendations incorporate changes the secretary of the VA and veterans’ service organizations have been advocating since the implementation of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (Choice Act).
The VA now must implement the reform recommendations described in the report to assure timely access to the quality care veterans expect and deserve. Needed reforms include changes in some facilities’ leadership, recruitment of separating DoD medical professionals, upgrades of clinical space, and an overhaul of out-of-date technology and financial and human capital systems.
The VA must double down on efforts to improve mental health care delivery and address the number of veteran suicides. The VA and DoD must strengthen their collaborative efforts in integrating medical, mental health, disability evaluation, and benefit programs to more rapidly and effectively deliver care and support services.
MOAA will continue to be watchful against any initiative that would force dual-eligible beneficiaries to choose between the DoD and VA health systems solely as a cost-savings measure.
Retired Pay and Survivor Issues
Military retirement changes
Congress adopted retirement reform recommendations for future service entrants in the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act . Beginning in 2018, the new blended retirement system (BRS) will cut future military retired pay for this group by 20 percent and substitute defined contributions to federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) accounts held by military members.
The BRS provides for an automatic government contribution (1 percent of basic pay a year) to TSP accounts, with an additional match of a servicemember’s own contribution, up to 4 percent of basic pay a year. The new law ends the government match after 26 years of service. MOAA will continue to advocate for government matching for a full career.
The new retirement plan also calls for DoD to provide a comprehensive financial education program to servicemembers so they can make better decisions regarding the investment portion of the new retirement plan. The first two component courses of DoD’s financial education program were released in June and September 2016 for financial counselors and educators. The remaining two courses are expected to be released soon for servicemembers eligible to opt in to the new retirement system. MOAA will continue to monitor this program to ensure the educational requirement is fully met at a standard that provides the best level of financial education.
Current servicemembers and retirees will be grandfathered into the present retirement system. Servicemembers with less than 12 years of service will have the option to opt in to the new system.
MOAA remains concerned about the new system’s impact on long-term retention and readiness. We will watch for any such trends as the new system takes effect.
Inflation-protected COLAs are an essential part of the nation’s commitment to protect earned-compensation value for military retirees and survivors and other federal annuitants over the course of many years. Proposals to cap annual COLAs below inflation or to redefine and depress the Consumer Price Index for the purpose of geometrically depressing successive annual adjustments would break long-standing statutory commitments to them.
MOAA will continue to exert every effort to preserve the congressional intent, as expressed in the House Armed Services Committee Print of Title 37, U.S. Code, “to provide every military retired member the same purchasing power of the retired pay to which he was entitled at the time of retirement [and ensure it is] not, at any time in the future … eroded by subsequent increases in consumer prices.”
MOAA strongly supports a plan to phase out the disability offset to retired pay for all disabled retired servicemembers, with initial priority for those who were prevented from serving 20 years solely because they became severely disabled in service. MOAA will work with Congress, DoD, and the administration to advance this proposal as a further important step toward the goal of ending the offset for all disabled retirees.
Eliminate the SBP/DIC offset
MOAA will continue to fight for full repeal of the deduction of VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuities for survivors of servicemembers who died of service-connected causes. MOAA strongly believes when military service caused a servicemember’s death, DIC should be paid in addition to SBP rather than being subtracted from it. To the extent funding cannot be obtained for immediate, full repeal, MOAA will seek interim steps to extend and substantially upgrade compensation for these most deserving survivors, as indicated below.
Extend SSIA authority
MOAA supports legislation to extend the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) beyond the current statutory expiration date of Oct. 1, 2017. Congress enacted SSIA as an interim means of easing financial penalties for survivors affected by the deduction of DIC from SBP. Since October 2008, qualifying surviving spouses have received gradually increasing monthly payments. The FY 2017 monthly allowance will be $310. It will be essential to include an extension provision in next year’s (FY 2018) defense bill to keep these survivors from experiencing a significant income loss.
Permanent ID card reform
MOAA will seek to lower the age of eligibility (currently 75) for permanent ID cards for spouses and survivors.
Final retired pay for survivors
MOAA supports legislation to authorize payment of a full month’s retired pay for the month of a servicemember’s death. Under current law, the last month’s retired pay is summarily recouped from a survivor and then a separate prorated check is issued for the days the retiree was alive. MOAA believes it’s wrong to impose such unexpected and insensitive financial penalties on survivors.
MOAA will advocate to lower the age at which survivors in receipt of DIC retain this benefit upon remarriage from 57 to 55. Continuation of benefits on remarriage at age 55 is authorized for all other federal survivor programs, including SBP. DIC survivors deserve equal treatment.
TRICARE eligibility continuation
MOAA will seek restoration of TRICARE coverage to remarried SBP annuitants if the remarriage subsequently ends in death or divorce, just as the VA already restores Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs coverage for survivors in similar circumstances whose original spouse died of service-connected causes.
Active and Reserve Force Issues
Operations and manpower
MOAA will aim to sustain military manpower levels needed to match service missions, ease deployment rates, and improve quality of life, retention, and readiness. Current operating tempos are easing, but budget-driven, end-strength reductions might cut end strength too deeply to meet national security interests. Adequate manpower levels and resources for recruiting, retention, training, and family support are essential.
Guard and Reserve families cannot be indefinitely burdened with irreconcilable trade-offs between civilian employment, personal retirement planning, and family obligations. Operational Reserve policy requires reservists to serve one of every five years on active duty, though many already have served multiple combat tours equal to active force deployment cycles. Regardless of reemployment protections, periodic long-term absences from the civilian workplace can only limit these servicemembers’ upward mobility and employability, as well as personal financial security. The new hybrid retirement plan (for service entrants on or after Jan. 1, 2018), composed of reduced retired pay and a matched 401(k)-style system, will require robust financial education of all servicemembers, including guardmembers and reservists, to protect their retirement interests.
Between 2000 and 2010, Congress made great progress toward restoring military pay comparability with that of the private sector. For most of the 1980s and ’90s, the executive and legislative branches capped military pay raises below those of the private sector. As a result, the pay gap grew as large as 13.5 percent, causing a retention and readiness crisis. Subsequently, executive and legislative branch leaders worked to make up that deficit over a decade, and comparability was restored as of 2010. During that process, Congress specified in law the annual military pay raise should match private-sector pay growth, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Cost Index (ECI), except during periods of “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare,” as determined by the president.
Starting in 2014, budget constraints led the president to exercise his alternative pay raise authority, and military raises were capped at least 0.8 percentage points below the ECI each year from 2014-16.
For 2017, the president again proposed capping the military pay raise at 1.6 percent, half a percentage point below the ECI. However, the House proposed a full-ECI 2.1-percent raise in its version of the FY 2017 Defense Authorization Bill, and that proposal made it into the final bill. If it passes the Senate (which had not yet occurred as of press time) and is signed by the president, the 2.1-percent raise will prevail.
MOAA keeps track of that cumulative pay-raise gap. If the 1.6-percent pay raise remains, that running gap will reach 3.1 percent for 2017. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently announced the ECI had increased 2.4 percent for the 12-month period as of September 2016. By law, this becomes the default military pay raise for 2018, unless the president proposes another cap. This could be a pivotal year when the new president must decide to continue military pay-raise caps or restore the ECI comparability standard. MOAA, through its national office and councils and chapters, will engage the 115th Congress to end military pay-raise caps and restore pay comparability.
MOAA seeks to preserve funding for family support; morale, welfare and recreation; exchange; commissary; and other critical support services and quality-of-life programs and improve and enhance access to affordable, quality child care. MOAA recognizes the significance of continued crucial support of military family members bearing the brunt of over a decade at war on the home front. MOAA will work with Congress, DoD, and others in ensuring necessary family support and quality-of-life services across all components, installations, and communities. Military families with a special-needs member face additional stressors. More must be done to enhance support services and health care for these families.
Multiple deployments of the Guard and Reserve bring significant strains on their employers and families. MOAA supports restoration of tax incentives to help employers sustain business operations during call-ups. MOAA believes new DoD-employer partnership initiatives – such as authority for employer payment of employees’ TRICARE Reserve Select premiums in lieu of other employer-provided coverage – will be essential to sustain employers’ willingness to hire and retain drilling members of the Guard and Reserve. Further, reservists must be assured of robust financial, legal, and reemployment protections during and after call-ups.
MOAA will request a report from DoD on the financial impact of PCS moves on military families, including delayed reimbursements related to travel or PCS, mandatory use of a government travel charge card, and advanced allowances meant to reduce financial hardship. MOAA also will assess standardization of associated policies and reimbursement procedures across the services.
Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits
MOAA will work to sustain the Post-9/11 GI Bill program to support the readjustment of hundreds of thousands of new veterans as the armed forces cut manpower. MOAA will also support continuation of the transfer-of-benefits authority as a military career incentive; seek consolidation of all GI bill programs into a simpler, clearer framework under veterans’ benefits law; and work to protect GI bill students against predatory education practices.
Commissaries and exchanges
MOAA will protect against privatization, consolidation, reduction in services, or elimination efforts in commissary and exchange programs; sustain funding support and guard against diminution of this substantial benefit for active, reserve, and retired servicemembers and their families and survivors; and support expansion of the exchange benefit to honorably discharged veterans through online shopping (Veteran Online Shopping Benefit).
MOAA will protect DoD dependent schools, ensure full funding of Impact Aid for public schools with significant populations of military children, and work to establish an identifier for military children in education data systems.
MOAA seeks expansion of spousal employment opportunities, including incentives for employers and contractors to hire military spouses. We will pursue tax credits or other support means for military spouses to obtain licenses or certifications required as a result of military relocations and continue to advocate at the state level for legislation – and ensure implementation of the enacted laws – to support military spouse license portability. MOAA will encourage remaining states to extend unemployment benefits to spouses forced to resign due to military-directed relocations.
Veterans’ employment and disability
Fifteen years of disability claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and appeals of denied claims from earlier conflicts continue to threaten the VA’s goal to eliminate the backlog. MOAA will work with leading veterans’ groups to forge recommendations to further upgrade the claims processing and appeals system and support legislative and executive initiatives to support veterans’ employment and career goals after separating from military service. MOAA supports recognizing for service connection Vietnam War-era Agent Orange claims from “blue water” Navy veterans.
Social Security and Medicare reform
MOAA will resist initiatives that impose disproportionate penalties on particular segments of the beneficiary or taxpayer population or fail to protect long-lived beneficiaries’ income from the ravages of inflation.
Sustaining the future financial viability of Social Security often is portrayed as requiring either disproportionate benefit reductions or disproportionate tax increases for future generations. Large numbers of older Americans depend on Social Security as old-age insurance programs for which they have paid decades of payroll taxes in good faith. Actions to restore the program’s long-term financial viability must fairly balance the legitimate interests of both current and future beneficiaries, and no group should be forced to bear disproportionate sacrifice.
MOAA seeks reform of the unfair provisions of the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (USFSPA). Divisible retired pay should be based on a servicemember’s grade and years of service at the time of divorce rather than at the time of the servicemember’s retirement from service. MOAA has garnered support from both the House and the Senate on this issue. As of press time, we await approval of the NDAA to see whether their support held up. Another issue MOAA continues to work is barring state courts from requiring payments to start before a servicemember actually retires from active duty and barring courts from dividing VA disability compensation, which is exclusively earned by the servicemember. MOAA will continue to work with DoD and Congress to address and overcome all unfair USFSPA provisions.
– Contributors are Col. Steve Strobridge, USAF (Ret), former vice president; Col. Dan Merry, USAF (Ret), vice president; Cmdr. René Campos, USN (Ret); Col. Mike Barron, USA (Ret); Capt. Kathy Beasley, USN (Ret); Brooke Goldberg; Col. Phil Odom, USAF (Ret); Lt. Col. (select) Aniela Szymanski, USMCR; Jamie Naughton; and Trina Fitzgerald, MOAA’s Government Relations Department, and Gina Harkins, senior staff writer. Visit moaa .org/email to sign up for legislative-news updates.