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Troops could have say on benefits changes

Jun. 11, 2013 - 09:26AM   |  
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A House committee is prepared to let service members anonymously have a say in their future benefits package, proposing a survey to determine the relative value of various forms of compensation.

That might sound like good news, but results of the survey proposed by the House Armed Services Committee could be used to decide which benefits to eliminate.

A similar survey conducted last year by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments discovered, for example, that four out of five service members would be willing to wait until age 50 to begin drawing retirement pay, in return for receiving a 1 percent increase in basic pay today. Active-duty enlisted troops now can begin receiving retirement pay as early as age 37.

The survey also showed that service members value vacation days more than commissaries, and would be willing to pay more for health care benefits in retirement if that meant they could pick their next duty assignment while still on active duty.

The Defense Department has been pushing for Congress to help trim rising personnel costs, but lawmakers are reluctant to help, at least so far.

The 2014 defense policy bill approved June 6 by the committee rejects the Obama administration’s proposal to cap the 2014 military raise at 1 percent, and also rejects a request to raise Tricare and pharmacy fees for retirees.

On June 5, the House defense appropriations subcommittee did the same thing, funding the 1.8 percent pay increase called for under a raise formula set in law, and adding $519 million to the Obama military health care budget rather than making any cuts.

The benefits survey, proposed by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., would ask a random selection of current service members to rank the value of basic pay, tax-free allowances, bonuses and special pays, dependent health care, health care for working-age retirees, Medicare-eligible retirees and retired pay.

Service members would be asked the value they place on different levels of pay and benefits, including the impact of copayments and deductibles for health care. Results would be broken down by age, rank and dependency status.

Results and the raw data would be made available for review.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat, said it is unclear how much longer Congress can ignore rising military personnel costs.

Smith said he “understands the politics” of not wanting to vote for benefits cuts, but he warned that projections show personnel costs, if left unrestrained, could end up consuming as much as one-quarter of the defense budget.

“Most independent analysts who have looked at it say this is not affordable,” he said.

Republicans do not necessarily disagree.

“If we don’t make reforms, we are going to be in a situation where we can afford one airplane every other year,” observed Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

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