WASHINGTON — Buried in the 1,915-page defense policy bill are major changes that could affect more than 1 million members of the military and their families.
The House has passed the bill 270-156 and the Senate is scheduled to vote on the $612 billion bill this week.
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation as part of a larger budget debate on Capitol Hill, but if enacted, here are highlights of the legislation affecting members of the armed forces and their families:
The biggest change is the implementation in 2018 of a new retirement system for service members. The new plan replaces a 70-year-old system where 83 percent of service members left the force without any retirement benefit because they didn’t serve at least 20 years. Under the new plan, service members can put a percentage of their pay into 401(k)-type accounts and the government will match those contributions up to 5 percent over 26 years. The accounts are being called Thrift Savings Plans.
The current force will be grandfathered into the existing system. Starting in 2018, members of the armed services who have fewer than 12 years of service can opt into the new system. Those with 12 years or more cannot because they likely would end up receiving a smaller retirement benefit than they would under the current system.
To offset the cost of the government matching payments into the Thrift Savings Plans, the regular military pension is being reduced for those enrolled in the new plan. When service members currently get ready to retire, their benefit is calculated by multiplying the average of their last three years of pay by 2.5. That multiplier would be reduced to 2. Those who invest in their Thrift Savings Plan, however, would be able to make up that difference.
Currently those in the reserves have to wait until they are 60 years old to receive their retirement benefit. Under the new legislation, they can take 25 percent or 50 percent of their benefit when they reach 20 years of service. That would offer them the money if they are moving into a new career, for instance, starting a business or perhaps trying to pay college expenses for their children.
Financial literacy training for troops also is in the bill.
A 1.3 percent increase in basic pay. Lawmakers were silent on the pay increase, leaving it to set itself at 2.3 percent through an automatic calculation based on a government cost index. The president, however, has the authority to set the increase, and earlier this year, he set it at 1.3 percent. The troops got 1 percent raises in both 2014 and 2015. Service organizations aren’t happy.
While saying that some proposals in the bill were encouraging, retired Navy Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America, said “a 1.3 percent pay raise is below private-sector pay growth and continues a worrying trend of capping pay for a third consecutive year.”
GUNS ON BASE
In a response to attacks on defense personnel, including those at Little Rock, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Fort Hood, Texas, the legislation requires the defense secretary to implement a new policy by year’s end on carrying personal firearms on base. The bill makes it clear that post commanders are empowered to let members of the armed forces carry government-issued or personal firearms on military installations, reserve centers or recruiting stations if it’s determined that carrying such a firearm “is necessary as a personal or force-protection measure.”
Military service members will pay more for prescription drugs, increases that affect retirees the most because active-duty members will continue to get their drugs free at military treatment facilities. Under the bill, the co-pay for drugs bought at retail drug stores will increase from $8 to $10 for generic and $20 to $24 for brand-name prescriptions. The co-pay on brand-name drugs also is going up for mail-order prescriptions.
Some service members who retire have found that the drugs they had been prescribed in the Defense Department medical system are not on the Veterans Affairs Department’s drug list. This is an especially critical problem for individuals who are being treated for pain, sleep disorders or psychiatric problems with medicine or a combination of drugs that doctors worked hard to personalize for the patient. The bill directs the VA and DOD to merge their drug lists to eliminate the loss of continuity in treatment and the need to change medications that are working.
The bill directs the Defense Department to come up with a plan to clear wait times — currently greater than three months — during the next three years. The goal is to improve access to child care on military installations to make sure it can be provided within 90 days. More than 200,000 children receive child care at Defense Department facilities. As of September 2014, the department reported that there were more than 11,000 children on waiting lists.
The bill expands the opportunity for the spouse and children of service members to fly, unaccompanied, on military aircraft if there is space available. Before, dependents were allowed to fly if the service member was deployed for more than 120 days. To ease the strain of extended deployments, the legislation allows them to fly if their service member is deployed for 30 days or more. Multiple deployments are common in today’s U.S. military. The commission said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, 66 percent of service members have deployed an average of 2.6 times, with many going more frequently.
The bill would gradually decrease the basic allowance for housing 1 percent a year for four years so service members end up paying 5 percent of their rent and utility costs in 2019.
The legislation preserves the housing allowance for dual military couples and does not include a controversial provision that would have drastically cut the allowance for uniformed service members who are married to one another and limit it for those who choose to share housing with other members.
Service members currently cannot go to an urgent care clinic without getting a referral from their primary care physician. The bill will permit them to seek non-emergency care on weekends, for example, at urgent care centers.
By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press