‘Special pay’ begins in health sector

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

The military medical community, battling shortages in war-critical health professionals including psychiatrists and clinical care nurses, will be the first community in the Department of Defense to use more flexible, responsive “special pay” authorities enacted by Congress nearly a year ago.

Other communities — including nuclear and aviation, the enlisted force and the officer force — will see the department’s schedule for moving them under new special pay ceilings in a report due to Congress by Jan. 31.

Pay experts long have criticized the hodge-podge of more than 65 special and incentive pays enacted over the decades, many of them with payment levels and eligibility requirements spelled out in statute.

The rigidity of that practice became a very obvious problem for the services as they went to war in two theaters with an all-volunteer force, and found that their mix of skills had to be reshaped quickly to meet war needs.

The enemy’s use of improvised explosive devices, for example, and the length of current conflicts that sent troops back to Iraq and Afghanistan again and again, has created a need more psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

Likewise, the demand for seasoned Special Forces personnel left another pay challenge for operational command. It wasn’t until January 2005 that Congress finally approved a Critical Skills Retention Bonus (CSRB), a one-time payment of up to $50,000, to be offered to retain combat-hardened Army sergeants first class with 19 to 25 years of service.

DoD officials last year presented lawmakers with a plan to reorganize the myriad of special and incentive pays under eight broad categories. It also called for setting higher pay caps on many of them and giving the services flexibility to adjust and use them swiftly as manpower needs dictate.

Features of the plan were drawn from recommendations made by the 2006 Defense Advisory Committee on Military Compensation and follow-up work the next year by the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation.

Before enacting the plan last January, Congress made a few adjustments. In the main, however, it embraced the concept of moving those 65 or so individual pays under eight broad categories of special pay authority where they can be adjusted and applied as the services deem fit. Congress merely must be given 30 days notice before changes take effect.

“There is more flexibility within these pays now where they can use them to meet requirements,” said Vee Penrod, director of military compensation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

She contrasted the new authority to the traditional “cumbersome” practice of DoD or individual services asking Congress to enact a new special pay or to adjust a current pay which routinely took two years to execute.

Those 65 special pays aren’t going away. They merely will be easier to adjust and to manage, Penrod explained.

Still to be managed under separate authority, lawmakers decided, will be the CSRB and the $30,000 Career Status Bonus. The latter bonus is still being used to lure careerists during their 15th year of service into choosing a vastly less value retirement plan, called Redux, in return for immediate cash.

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