By Otto Kreisher
WASHINGTON (May 7, 2008) – The House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee unanimously approved its portion of the FY09 defense authorization bill Wednesday, boosting the administration’s requested military pay raise to 3.9 percent, rejecting the proposed Tricare fee increases and offering several initiatives intended to improve the health of service members and retirees and to encourage retention.
The panel’s part of the authorization bill (H.R. 5658) also would allow the requested increase of 7,000 soldiers and 5,000 Marines intended to relieve the stress on the ground forces and would add 500 full-time support personnel for the Army National Guard and 150 for the Army Reserves, which were not requested by the administration.
The increase to the Guard and reserves is well below the total increase of 3,371 approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Davis, D-Calif., and ranking member John McHugh, R-N.Y., praised the proposed legislation as the product of a cooperative, bipartisan process and something of which the members could be proud.
It was approved by a unanimous voice vote without amendments in a very brief session slipped in between a series of floor votes. The full committee is to mark up the entire authorization next Wednesday and the bill is slated for floor action the following week.
Davis said the panel’s greatest challenge was to find the funding to offset the $1.2 billion the administration expected to gain from its proposed increase in fees for the Tricare military health care and pharmacy programs. She said the subcommittee was working with the leadership to find the offset funds.
Although Congress has blocked the attempts to raise the fees for two years, Davis said it was “unclear that we will be able to continue to sustain prohibition on health care fees [increases] in the future,” and would have to work “to find a fair and equitable solution that protects our beneficiaries and ensures the financial viability of the military health care systems for the future.”
The panel also rejected the administration’s plan to cut uniformed health care personnel by 1,473 and replace them with civilians. The Senate committee’s bill would allow the switch to civilian health care providers but require the Pentagon to certify that it would not affect the quality or cost of the care.
The Pentagon’s health care expenses have been escalating at alarming rates for years due to the general rise in medical care costs and additional benefits Congress has provided. Pentagon officials and a panel of outside experts have noted that the fees and co-payments required for Tricare have not been changed for nearly a decade. The proposed fee increases would have affected mainly retirees with higher incomes.
The House panel proposed adding a provision that would waive co-payments for preventive care services, such as breast cancer or colorectal screening, for military personnel, beneficiaries and some retirees.
But Davis noted that because of costs constraints it would not cover retirees and their beneficiaries who are eligible for Medicare.
The panel also approved a pilot program to allow career-minded service members to leave active duty for up to several years and then return to duty without loss of rank or seniority. Davis said it could be particularly beneficial to female officers who would like to have time to have children. And it proposed a tuition-assistance program to allow military spouses to get education or training in career-enhancing skills.