When it comes to the Department of Defense, Congress must pass two bills each year. First is the NDAA -- the National Defense Authorization Act. This bill authorizes the spending that DoD can do each year. It also is the piece of legislation that is used to change military benefits. For instance increases in health care costs, like raising co-pays for prescription drugs, are made in the NDAA.
TCongress has passed this bill each year for 53 years, although sometimes recently, like this year, they didn’t get it done until almost the last minute.
The second bill they need to pass is the appropriations bill -- the bill that actually provides the money to do the things DoD wants to do. This year, just like last year, the DoD funding was wrapped up in what is called an “omnibus” bill, which funded the entire federal government. Again, this came at the last minute.
The NDAA was a mixed bag for military people.
Congress rejected most of the proposals from DoD to cut personnel benefits. However, it did vote for these:
- Increase out-of-pocket costs for pharmacy co-pays. Beneficiaries who are not serving on active duty will see a one-time increase of $3 for drugs purchased at a retail pharmacy and for mail-order non-generic prescriptions.
- Expand the mandatory mail-order requirement for maintenance medications to all TRICARE beneficiaries. TFL beneficiaries are already required to use the mail-order pharmacy or an MTF to refill maintenance medications. Starting in FY 2016 all TRICARE beneficiaries will enter this pilot program.
- A one percent (1%) decrease in Basic Allowance for Housing in FY 2015 with no further decrease in future years.
- Extends full COLA protection to servicemembers entering service through January 1, 2016. New service entrants were not protected when cuts to military retirement COLAs were repealed in March 2014. This means that starting on January 1 of 2016 new service members will receive a COLA that is 1 percent less than the annual inflation rate when they retire.
- Extends 90 day early Guard/Reserve retirement credit over two fiscal years. Previously, time served on active duty spanning two fiscal years was not fully counted
- Prohibits the Pentagon from initiating another round of BRAC (base closures).
- By staying silent on the issue of a pay raise for active duty personnel, Congress went along with DoD’s proposal to limit the pay increase to 1 percent, instead of a 1.8 percent that was already provided for in law.
- Limited the cut in support to commissaries to $10 million, instead of a planned $100 million cut. The $10 million is supposed to be made up by increased efficiencies in the commissary system.
- Blocks any attempt by the services to ban sale of tobacco products on military installations and ships but requires that such products not be sold at less that the most competitive prices in the local community.
Although AFTEA was opposed to these cuts in benefits, the silver lining is that they are much less that the Pentagon wanted when it submitted its budget to Congress last spring. In that budget it had requested these:
- Cap the active duty pay raise at 1 percent (vs. a 1.8 percent raise established in law)
- Increase out-of pocket housing costs by 5 percent over 3 years
- Reduce purchasing power at the commissary by 66 percent
- Radically overhaul the TRICARE benefit by consolidating TRICARE Prime, Standard, and Extra, increasing pharmacy fees, and implementing a means-tested TRICARE for Life (TFL) enrollment fee
The benefit cuts passed by Congress are clearly much less than DoD had wanted. AFTEA opposed those cuts because the erosion of pay and benefits in the past lead to poor recruiting and retention, resulting in unacceptable readiness issues. It appears we are heading down that path again.
Instead of passing 12 individual funding bills for the federal government as they’re supposed to do by the first of October every year, Congress let political fighting prevent them from doing their jobs. As a result, they had to pass a temporary funding bill that only kept the government functioning through December 11. That meant that after the November elections but before the December 11 deadline, they had to pass legislation to fund the government for the rest of FY2015. Because of the shortness of time, they decided to do what they had done the year before -- pass an “omnibus” bill that funded the entire government in one big bill. Even then, they had to pass a short-term funding bill to get past the December 11 deadline because they couldn’t come to an agreement.
However, they finally did pass a funding bill and much to the surprise of AFTEA and other military and veterans groups, there were some things in it we did not expect.
In addition to restoring most of the cuts that had been made in funding for commissaries, Congress also included the two year advanced appropriations for VA benefit programs through FY 2016. These accounts include VA compensation and pensions, readjustment benefits such as the GI bill, and insurance and indemnities for survivors.
This comes in addition to advance funding for VA health care which happened in FY 2010. This
provision will ensure veterans and survivors benefit checks would continue in the event of a future government shutdown, and allow important VA research programs to continue unhindered by annual budget negotiations.
Very often in the past the Coast Guard has been forgotten when it came to personnel benefits and other issues that were provided to the other armed services that are part of the Department of Defense. That is because unless a war is declared the Coast Guard is part of a different department of government. The service known as the Coast Guard was officially established in 1915 and was part of the Department of the Treasury. In 1967 it became part of the Department of Transportation. Then in 2003 it became part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Because DHS is also the department that deals with the issues of border protection and immigration, and because the President’s executive order regarding illegal immigrants is so controversial, Congress could not reach an agreement regarding funding DHS for the remainder of FY2015. Instead, Congress agreed to fund DHS only through the end of February. By then the Republicans will have the majorities in both the Senate and the House and they intend to use their majority to try and stop the President’s order.
Unfortunately, the Coast Guard is caught up in that political fight simply because it is part of DHS. Therefore, like the rest of DHS the Coast Guard is only funded through the end of February and Congress must pass new funding legislation is the Coast Guard is to be able to continue functioning.
AFTEA is appalled that this has happened and we will fight to get the Coast Guard funded just like the rest of the armed services through the remainder of FY2015.