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TRICARE, military pay raise and more, what’s on congressional plate this session

The military personnel system is going through a crisis according to some of the most notable former military officials in the nation and in the midst of those choppy waters, two new lawmakers are taking the helm.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) took over as chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee this year. This responsibility comes as a slew of issues plague the military. TRICARE, talent management, sexual assault and housing allowance, among others, are all at the forefront of the personnel realm.

A daunting task, considering former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) told Congress the underlying problem is “that the current military personnel system was developed in World War II” and is now terribly antiquated.

In an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio, Coffman and Speier explain their priorities over the next legislative session.

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TRICARE

TRICARE is a big spender when it comes to the military budget. The most recent Congressional Budget Office report on military health care from 2014 stated DoD spent $52 billion in health care for service members, retirees and their families in 2012.

Coffman didn’t rule out the possibility of premiums going up to cover those costs in the future, but said he wants to protect those currently in the military from rising premiums.

“If there are changes in premiums I want to look at bifurcating the system, just like we did in the retirement system, and say these changes are applicable to new enlistees, new accessions into our military and not existing personnel,” Coffman said.

DoD Reporter Scott Maucione discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

Coffman’s predecessor, former Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), proposed adding enrollment fees and copayments to active-duty family members on TRICARE. The premiums ranged from $180 to $650. Heck bifurcated the system, as Coffman suggests, by only proposing the fees apply to family members of military personnel that joined after 2018.

Heck’s provisions were taken out of the final 2017 defense authorization act and never actually made it into law.

Despite the costs of TRICARE, Speier said it may not receive too many changes in the near future.

“I’m not sure how much we are going to be tinkering with TRICARE. I think way we need to look at is the pharmacy copays and whether or not there is a modest copay that should be pursued,” Speier said.

Pay raise

The 2017 defense authorization act gave the military a 2.1 percent raise. The military is supposed to receive an increase each year that is tied to the bump in private sector wages, but that hasn’t always happened in the past.

As for 2018, Coffman said he thinks the pay raise will stay with what the law requires.

“There may be a temptation to go above that and a temptation to go below that particularly on the Senate side, but I don’t see that happening, I think we are going to stick with current law,” Coffman said.

Speier was a little more open to changing the rates.

“I think we will have to look at it. In the end we are increasing the budget for the Department of Defense. I always wonder how much of that trickles down to the service member and how much is really padding for those who are providing spare parts or developing the next weapons system and I want to make sure we continue to provide a sound salary and benefits, but consistent with what our budget is,” Speier said.

Up or Out

The military is struggling to recruit and retain the talent it needs.

The Air Force’s pilot shortage, the lack of Navy’s nuclear qualified officers and the Marine Corps’ shortfall in sniper scouts can all be tied to the rigidity of the military’s personnel system.

“If the military is going to recruit and retain a volunteer force with the necessary skills, it needs to do two things. It needs to recruit, assign and promote in a way that develops and retains value across a wide range of skills including the highly technical skills, and it needs to better accommodate the evolution of American society and the American family. And it needs to do those things without sacrificing the aspects of the system that are working well,” Talent said last week.

The up or out system requires service members to promote to the next rank within a certain amount of time or leave the military.

But, sometimes that ends up pushing out extremely talented service members who don’t take the traditional military career path.

Both Coffman and Speier said Congress needs to look more deeply into the up or out system.

“The military is different than it has historically been. … It’s such an up or out system when it comes to promotion that we are forcing good people out of the system that we would never have forced out in previous generations of our military. I think we have to reexamine that whole question to say, ‘Is our up or out system too aggressive?’” Coffman said. “There is a training cost associated with you let talented people go because they are certainly good enough to do their job well, but not competitive enough for promotion and you’re training new people to take their place.”

Speier is also taking the issue to heart and said the issue reaches beyond talent.

“I think it’s very important for us to look at that. Up or out creates all kinds of additional conduct and behavior that is not consistent with our interests. If up or out is what’s motivating you, you may be reluctant, for instance, to disclose that there is a problem within your unit regarding sexual assault or drug abuse. You can’t ignore those kinds of circumstances. … I think there is much we can learn on having a series of hearings on up or out,” Speier said.