Airmen attend a Transition Assistance Program class at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, in May 2013. The TAP classes advise separating service members on their benefits and help with resume writing, job searches and interviews. (Airman 1st Class Austin Harvill/Air Force)

The Air Force mistakenly issued medical benefits to more than 1,000 voluntarily separating airmen earlier this year, and is now revoking those benefits.

Airmen separating under the Voluntary Separation Pay program — a major component of the cash-strapped Air Force’s massive force management downsizing program — have never been eligible for Transition Assistance Management Program benefits, the service said. TAMP benefits include 180 days of transitional Tricare medical coverage.

But during the fiscal 2014 VSP program, some Air Force installations did not correctly update airmen’s status in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said in an Oct. 8 email. As a result, roughly 25 percent of the 4,247 airmen who received VSP in 2014 were incorrectly issued medical TAMP benefits, Richeson said.

“The Air Force is researching the specific impacts and will issue guidance to ensure airmen and families are not unfairly impacted,” Richeson said.

Many voluntarily separated airmen are outraged, and feel like a bait-and-switch has been pulled on them. Dozens have posted on Facebook pages discussing VSP that they were told different stories about what they would get, and vented their frustration.

A captain who voluntarily separated Sept. 29 said he was told in briefings that he would get 180 days of extended medical coverage, as well as base and commissary privileges for two years. But when he separated, he and other airmen heard a different story — that they weren’t eligible for those benefits. He is lucky, since his wife recently took early retirement from the Air Force and he can still get medical coverage through her. But many others aren’t as lucky.

“It’s a hit in the gut,” he said. “It’s terrible. They asked us to get out, and the last day you go and they say, ‘You don’t get this.’ ”

The Air Force said TAMP benefits are only for airmen who are involuntarily and honorably separated, since those separations are typically short-notice separations. Richeson said since VSP was established in 2006, the Air Force has not extended those benefits to voluntarily separating airmen, because they choose to leave, receive a monetary incentive, and typically have more time to plan for the transition, including arranging for medical coverage.

“There have been no changes or adjustments to this policy during the FY 14 Force Management program,” Richeson said. “TAMP benefits are reviewed with the member at Airman and Family Readiness Centers during congressionally mandated pre-separation counseling.”

But a major who separated Sept. 29, who asked for his name not to be used because he’s now a reservist, said he received mixed messages for months. He said he was told at some point that he would be eligible for extended medical benefits. But as he tried to confirm that, he couldn’t get a straight answer from any of the offices he asked.

“I’ve been told conflicting things since April,” he said Oct. 2. “Nobody had any guidance until two or three weeks ago. The family center that does transition, they didn’t know, and didn’t get a list of what benefits would come. They defaulted to the line that if you volunteer, you don’t get six months medical. As we’re following up, in the last month or so [before separation], my wife called the DEERS field office, they looked at the code, and said, ‘Yeah, you’re entitled to the benefits.’ ”

He said his Military Personnel Flight office, which handles personnel matters, told him in August that he would get six months of medical benefits after checking with DEERS. But on Friday, Sept. 26 — three days before he separated — he was told there was a problem with his medical benefits. The major and his wife spent the weekend combing through the section of the U.S. Code governing VSP — 10 U.S.C. 1175a — and thought it said they were eligible for those benefits.

When the major showed up for his final separation the following Monday, Sept. 29, he brought the U.S. Code with him and spent about four hours in the office trying to straighten things out.

“When I showed up at the MPF to turn in my active-duty Common Access Card and pick up my green reserve card and beige [benefits] card, they didn’t give me the beige card because they had guidance from Big Air Force to remove those benefits,” he said. “I spent four hours, and left with just my green card. It was very upsetting.”

Now, the major said, “my status is in limbo.” He wants to be a self-employed freelancer, and when he made his post-Air Force plans, he was counting on the six months of continued medical coverage to help bridge that gap between military medical care and Obamacare. He said that with his six-figure Air Force salary in his recent past, he wouldn’t be able to afford Obamacare premiums during the open enrollment period. But after six months on his current $25,000 freelancing income, he would be eligible for subsidies that would allow him to afford Obamacare coverage.

His fallback option is to pay out-of-pocket for 180 days of extended Tricare coverage, but that’s extremely expensive as well and would cost him about $5,000.

But even getting approved for that was an ordeal because of the Air Force’s mistake.

“They said I’m not eligible, because I get DoD health care for six months,” he said. “Now, because I did separate and they physically removed my benefits, other agencies see it’s been removed and I’m eligible for continuation care.”

The major hasn’t yet paid his premium for that coverage, because he’s still trying to get the Air Force to admit that it’s wrong and he and other airmen receiving VSP are entitled to extended TRICARE coverage through TAMP. He plans to mail his out-of-pocket premium in toward the end of November, if no resolution is in sight. But until then, his family of six has no health coverage.

“Now, it’s down to the wire,” he said. “I’ve got 60 days [starting from his Sept. 29 separation date] to backdate my coverage. God forbid a family member should get sick in that time.”

The mix-up involving medical benefits is not the first bump in the force management programs. In March, the Air Force put VSP and early retirement processing on hold while it figured out how to handle approvals for certain waivers.

And in April, the Air Force mistakenly approved early retirements for fewer than 20 airmen, and then revoked the approvals. After outraged airmen vented online and launched a White House petition, the Air Force backtracked and said it would honor those approvals.

By Stephen Losey (Air Force Times)


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