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DoD solidifies plans to simplify byzantine reserve benefit system

The Defense Department is stitching up an inequality gap in reservists’ benefits when performing different duties that experts and lawmakers say should have been fixed long ago.

For years reservists received differing pay and benefits depending on which of the 32 duty statuses their orders fell under, causing a bureaucratic mess and gaps in benefits.

“The current [reserve] status system is complex, aligns poorly to current training and mission support requirements, fosters inconsistencies in compensation and complicates rather than supports effective budgeting. Additionally, the [reserve] status system causes members to experience disruptions in pay and benefits as they transition among different duty statuses,” stated a 2015 Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) report.

One of the most used examples to describe this problem is when an aircraft or the helicopter goes down with active duty service members and reservists with different orders on board. Despite doing the same activity, “the benefits are completely different for the surviving spouses,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Todd Weiler told Federal News Radio in an exclusive interview.

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But all that may be about to change. DoD presented a plan to lawmakers last month to consolidate the more than 30 reserve duty statuses into just four.

“By bringing the number of statuses down to a manageable number that’s associated with different duties we can then equalize the benefits across those duties,” Weiler said. “For example, survivor benefits would be the exact same across a certain duty area, or benefits regarding retirement would be exactly the same across a certain duty area and not specifically tied to the statutory authority or the way in which we activated someone.”

Right now, the way reservists are called up differs on a number of factors. Each time the purpose changes — say from aid to state government to training — the original orders must be canceled and new ones are drawn up.

“The status under which [a reserve] member serves differs depending on a variety of factors: whether the status is active duty, full-time National Guard duty, or inactive duty; whether the duty is voluntary or involuntary; and whether the [reserve] member’s mission is training, support or operations. One-hundred seventy statuses may differ based on the type of appropriation that funds the status,” the MCRMC report stated.

The new categories bunch together a handful of each of the previous statuses. For example, category four brings together active services in which a service member might become involved in military actions, provide federal assistance during a disaster, support or training before deployment and post-deployment activities.

Category two encompasses blocks of time dedicated to readiness like required training, administrative activities or additional training for future mobilization.

The categories basically align with active duty for contingencies, active duty for other than contingencies, normal drill duty and remote training at home.

“The vast majority of where we needed to create equity and benefits, it was very easy to do, it was very little or no cost at all and in the major areas where we had to address some issues, we were able to trade off things,” Weiler said.

The Pentagon estimates the total cost of the switch will be about $28.5 million in 2017. The cost over five years will come to about $142.3 million, stated documents obtained by Federal News Radio.

“The cost is very doable, it’s certainly not what some folks expected when we started this process. I really do have to say there was a lot of trepidation. People have been trying to do this for many, many years,” Weiler said.

But there is still a long road ahead. Implementing the new program requires a change to more than 400 laws pertaining to authorities, benefits, compensation, legal protection and special and incentive pay.

Congress seems friendly to the idea. It mandated DoD come up with a new status system for reservists and implement it by October 2018 in the 2016 defense authorization act.

The Pentagon plans to brief Congress again in March with a construct brief and draft legislation.

“As this moves forward what you will see is we will try to align authorities on which we bring reservists on duty in such a way as we can create as much equity as possible with benefits in the current system. You will run the current system while you’re building the new system and they will kind of run together for a period of time, which is the way the department does most major initiatives,” Weiler said. “We want to make sure you don’t just flip and switch and find out you broke something. My guess is that this will be a multi-year implementation to get us finally down to four major categories.”

Reservists will be educated about the new system and reservists will be told with each order what category the order falls under.

“Right now you could be given an order and your buddy next door could get a set of orders, they could be under different authorities, you could be going to do the same thing and think you have the same benefits, but you don’t,” Weiler said.

Weiler added he talked to President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team and they seemed very excited about the program.

The team will pick up the reins and in the meantime leftover staff will work on the effort.