Defense bill aims to strengthen recruiting

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Congress has passed a 2006 defense authorization bill that focuses its personnel initiatives on new and improved tools to strengthen recruiting and retention and to help reshape the current force.

The final bill leaves behind a host of Senate-passed initiatives to enhance entitlements for military survivors, reservists and disabled retirees.

If any provision carried a big price tag and didn’t have a direct impact on readiness, explained staff members familiar with final negotiations, House-Senate conferees ignored them as they shaped a compromise bill.

Dropped were Senate provisions to: end a reduction in military survivor benefits for survivors who draw Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs; lower the age-60 threshold for reserve retirement; aid older Survivor Benefit Plan participants by moving up the 2008 effective date of a paid-up premium feature; restored full retirement benefits to 28,000 retirees deemed “unemployable,” open TRICARE to all drilling reservists at current premium rates.

While rejecting these, Congress did take modest steps to enhance entitlements.

It extended eligibility for recent death benefit gains — the $100,000 lump-sum death gratuity and maximum Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance of $400,000 — to survivors of all active-duty deaths, rather than combat-related death only. This applies to future deaths and, retroactively, to active-duty deaths since Oct. 7, 2001, the start of the war in Afghanistan.

On TRICARE Reserve Select, lawmakers decided the current program with premiums set to cover only 28 percent of program costs should remain “select,” open only to reservists and National Guard members who complete post-9/11 deployments. Premium for 2006 will be $81 a month for individuals and $253 for family coverage. TRS users also pay TRICARE Standard deductibles and cost shares.

But Congress voted to open TRS to any drilling reservists willing to pay higher premiums. The first of two higher tiered TRS premiums is for reservists who lack alternative health insurance because they are unemployed, self-employed or their company offers no health insurance. They will be able to enroll if they pay 50 percent of program costs. Monthly premium would be about $145 for individuals and $452 for family coverage.

A third tier of premium would apply to drilling reservists who have alternative health insurance but choose not to use it. They will pay 85 percent of program costs, roughly $245 a month for individual coverage and $768 for family coverage. It’s an option not expected to be popular but at least every drilling reservist will have access to some health care coverage.

Congress also approved a limited income-loss protection plan for involuntarily activated reservists kept on continuous active duty longer than 18 months. If they can show an income loss from service, then starting with their 19th month they will receive up to $3,000 a month in replacement income. Given current patterns of deployments, few reservists are expected to qualify.

Congress made a modest change for military retirees deemed “unemployable” by the Department of Veterans Affairs. These 28,000 retirees draw VA disability compensation at the 100-percent level. They were excluded last year, however, from a provision that lifted the ban on concurrent receipt of VA compensation and military retirement for other 100-percent disabled retirees.

The so-called “IU” retirees remain under a 10-year schedule to phase in retired pay forfeited to concurrent receipt restrictions.

The Senate had voted to restore full retirement immediately to IU retirees but, as with so many Senate initiatives, it wasn’t funded. Conferees quickly rejected that idea and accepted the House plan to fully restore the retired pay of IU retirees in 2009 instead of 2014.

Initiatives in the final bill to manage and shape the force include:

• A voluntary separation incentive that the Navy and Air Force want to use to entice officers with six to 12 years of service in over-populated specialties to leave active duty. The lump-sum voluntary incentive cannot be set at more than double the amount of involuntary separation incentive already available, which equal about a year’s basic pay.

• Authority for the Army to develop and test up to four fresh recruiting incentives.

• Authority to renew or raise 20 different types of bonuses and special pays.

• Increases in active-duty end strength of 10,000 soldiers and 1,000 Marines.

• An increase in maximum hardship duty pay, from $300 a month to $750.

• A doubling of the enlistment bonus ceiling to $40,000.

• An increase in re-enlistment bonus authority to $90,000 from $60,000.

• An inter-service transfer bonus of up to $2,500 for active and reserve members who agree to move to another branch of service.

• Authority for the Army and its reserve components to pay a $1,000 recruit referral bonus to any member who refers a person to a recruiter.

• Authority to pay up to $430 per month to service members during rehabilitation from combat-related wounds or illnesses.

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