Monday, August 29, 2011

The Merits of Merger

Recently, the Air Force rejected a proposal for merging the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The proposal is the latest in what has become a periodic debate: is there merit to considering a merger of National Guard and Reserve elements on the RC? The argument for a unified USAF Air Reserve Component comes from a a group of five retired major generals with more than considerable RC experience among them. The generals (2 Reserve 3 guard) hinge their proposal on the assertion that Guard and Reserve elements are forced to compete for funding and ultimately carry out largely redundant missions. The ARC Proposal contains many of the same themes as a 1997 report from the Congressional Budget Office which concluded that a merger of the Army Reserve and National Guard would result in an annual savings of $500 million or more. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has essentially rejected the proposal opting instead to seek cost efficiency through adjustments to AF pay systems. In an interview with DefenseNews Schwartz recently stated, "We think that sort of an approach, which is more business coordinative, is a much-higher confidence path to achieving efficiencies than sort of large, more difficult to execute organizational changes for which there is less apparent benefit."

Historically, similar propositions have been met with the same degree of skepticism. Over the years the argument for a combined Guard and Reserve has taken on different forms, and each time the options of unification have been deemed either too short sighted or too logistically complex to be effective. ROA maintains that Guard and Reserve merger talk simply ignores the fundamental distinction of the respective services' missions.

While cooperation between National Guard and Federal Reserve forces is critical to the resiliency and reliability of the Reserve Component, any proposal to merge the two ignores their distinct operational capabilities. Federal reserve forces represent a unique tool in the arsenal of our nation's defense. Many assets maintained by reserve forces do not have a Guard equivalent. ROA remains committed to preserving this distinction as a means to ensuring our national security and will continue to advocate against efforts to downgrade RC operability as a method of deficit reduction.

Yet merger talk has persisted, periodically resurfacing in the form of updated proposals, seemingly supported by new data. So is there merit to the talk of merger? Amidst the current environment of austerity is merger something to be taken seriously? Share your opinion with us by posting a comment below.

USAF Guard Reserve Proposals Part I
USAF Guard Reserve Proposal Part II

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Stays? What Goes?

The Story, from The Hill (8/7/11)
Report calls on Pentagon to prepare for possible debt-deal spending cuts

The debt-ceiling legislation signed into law on Tuesday contains no firm figure for how deeply Pentagon and national security agency budgets will shrink over the next decade. But the White House and senior Democratic lawmakers say it’ll be $350 billion.

If a yet-to-be-formed “super committee” of House and Senate members fails to come up with a deficit-reduction plan by late November, the debt-ceiling law requires massive cuts to several troughs of federal spending — including national security agencies. Those cuts could total up to an additional $500 billion over a decade.

So what programs are essential? What initiatives can afford to be cut? How can Congress meet the mandated reductions without hallowing the military at a time of such precarious national security and overseas operations? Discuss below:

Veteran Workforce Initiatives

The story, from American Forces Press Service (8/5/11)
Obama announces veteran workforce initiatives

The president proposed a set of tax credits for companies hiring veterans, announced a new task force to develop reforms that will help service members transition to civilian jobs or higher education, and challenged industry to hire more veterans.

“Today's veterans are Americans who have done their duty,” the commander in chief said. “They have fought our wars with valor, from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan.”

But many of those veterans find when they leave service that their military skills don’t qualify them for civilian jobs, the president said.

As of June, a million veterans were unemployed, and the jobless rate for post-9/11 vets was 13.3 percent, administration officials said. Another million veterans will return to the civilian workforce over the next five years, they said.

ROA has been a long time advocate for the rights of service members and their civilian employers. See the employment highlights of ROA’s legislative agenda below:

Employer Support:

  • Continue to enact tax credits for health care and differential pay expenses for deployed Reserve Component employees.
  • Provide tax credits to offset costs for temporary replacements of deployed Reserve Component employees.
  • Support tax credits to employers who hire service members who served in the Global War on Terrorism.

Employee Support:

  • Permit delays or exemptions while mobilized of regularly scheduled mandatory continuing education and licensing /certification/promotion exams.
  • Continue to support a law center dedicated to USERRA/SCRA problems of deployed Active and Reserve service members

You can find detailed information on ROA’s advocacy initiatives focusing on employment along with a comprehensive listing of employment resources on our Current Issues Page.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

ROA Attends White House Briefing on Debt Ceiling Deal

On July 31, Congressional leaders announced they had reached an agreement which would raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The next day, ROA representatives were invited to a White House briefing to detail specifics of the deal. According to White House staff, the debt ceiling agreement will split cost reductions evenly between security and non-security discretionary spending. There will be no reduction in mandatory entitlement spending.

This means for the initial stage of $1 trillion in debt reduction, DoD will be looking at $350 billion in discretionary budget cuts over the next 10 years. This is in addition to the $100 billion that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reprogrammed earlier in this year. These reductions will start taking effect on Oct 1.

While this appears to be only a five percent cut per year, the accounting can be tricky. DoD’s budget is often quoted as $700 billion each year. However the House Defense Appropriates bill sets the base budget at just $530 billion for FY-2012. The balance of Defense dollars are provided for overseas contingency operations, and therefore are allocated through supplemental funding. If applied against the basic budget, the agreed upon cuts would reduce the DoD’s budget by 7.5 percent annually.

The White House staff explained that the cuts are not over. The second round in budget reduction will occur over the next three months. A super committee will be appointed with the goal to find further reductions of up to $1.5 trillion. Again, Defense is expected to carry about half of these reductions. Twelve law makers will be appointed (six from each party) over the next several weeks. These officials will be tasked with developing specific recommendations for across-the-board cuts, which will include mandatory as well as discretionary spending.

The super committee will have until the end of November to come up with an agreement. Like earlier BRAC recommendations, Congress will be presented with a recommendation that can only be approved or disapproved, as they will be unable to amend the committee’s recommendation.

Should the committee fail to come to an agreement, or Congress fail to pass the recommendation, this will “trigger” an automatic reduction of $1.2 trillion dollars, wherein Defense will face a further cut of 9 percent annually. For the committee to reach a majority on the agreement, the decision has to be bipartisan, including at least one member of the opposing party.

Hopes were voiced by participants at the White House meeting, that the savings gained by withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan could be an offset to mandatory cuts. According to the debt ceiling agreement, this should be the case, but the staff suggested that the super committee might decide otherwise.

A greater concern was voiced over the balanced budget amendment, which under this agreement, will also be voted upon. With each chamber requiring a 2/3rds vote to approve, the White House predicted that such legislation is very unlikely to pass one, if not both chambers.

ROA will be watching the evolution of these budget cuts, and will remain an outspoken advocate for a strong national security.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Updates to TRICARE Programs

Last week, leadership from the Department of Defense, Health Affairs (HA) presented an executive briefing to provide updates on current programs and future initiatives. This quarterly meeting was hosted by Rear Admiral Christine Hunter, Deputy Director TRICARE Management Activity (TMA). ROA was represented by legislative director, CAPT Marshall Hanson, USNR (Ret.). Below is a review of major projects currently underway:

TRICARE Young Adult (TYA) Coverage: Nearly 6500 TYA plans have been purchased under TRICARE standard. Unmarried dependents who are not eligible for other employer coverage, can continue on TRICARE at age 21 (or 23 for full-time college students) for $186/month. Coverage is retroactive to Jan 1, 2011 if past premiums are paid, but retroactivity coverage ends on October 1, 2011. TMA takes pride in starting a new health plan in 4.5 months, claiming that learned a lot from implementing TRICARE Retired Reserve. While DoD/HA had set the goal of opening up a TRICARE Prime option by the Oct. 1, the complexity of implementing numerous health plans that are under Prime, are delaying the startup, but the option has been promised by the end of the year.

Status of TRICARE Reserve Select (TRS): ROA posed a question regarding beneficiaries having access to the Continued Health Care Benefit Program (CHCBP). CHCBP is DoD’s version of Cobra transitional health coverage which would allow Reservists to continue access to health care should the lose TRS. ROA was assured that the final federal rule has been signed and with publication the availability date will be known.

Medical Readiness: An issue which remains a challenge for the Reserve Components. The Army National Guard and Army Reserve face the greatest challenge, with the Navy and Air Force Reserves and the Air National Guard meeting or exceeding the medical readiness goal of 80 percent. TRS has helped in readiness, with enrollment increasing. Reserve Component members are better informed about this program then they were just two years ago. Ninety-seven percent of TRS enrollees would recommend TRS to others. Forty-eight percent of enrollees say TRS is a factor in their decision to remain in the Guard and Reserve. Awareness is poorest among 18-24 year olds.

T-3 TRICARE Contract: Two regions have been awarded in the North and the South and the new contract will begin April 2012. While a lawsuit was filed of the award in the South region, DoD officials are confident that it won’t change the award. In the West Region, GAO upheld the protest and United Health Group and TriWest will be submitting updated information to refresh their bids for reconsideration in August.

The Active Duty family member dental contract was awarded to Metlife, and a court challenge of the award was denied on 6-24-2011. Reserve Component members and their families can enroll in this program. The new contract will start in the Spring and will include additional coverage and benefits.

DoD ID Numbers as Primary Identification: As Military IDs are used for medical access, social security numbers are being replaced with DoD ID numbers. DoD benefits numbers will be printed on the back of new ID cards for TRICARE eligibles. The cycle to replace cards is expected to take 4 years, although retirees with indefinite expiration dates will have cards replaced as needed.

Expanded Vaccine Coverage: Beginning in Fall 2011, vaccines will become available from network pharmacies with zero co-payment. Up until now, H1NA, seasonal flu and pneumococcal vaccines were covered. Other vaccines had to be administered under medical coverage. Added to the pharmacy benefit will be Hepatitis A and B, Hib, Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), Polio, Rotavirus, Measles, mumps and Rubella, Chicken Pox, Meningitis, Shingles, HPV, and Tetanus booster. Vaccines can still be administered during physician visits under the TRICARE medical benefit.

TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery: The program continues to be an optimum means for maintenance medications. Participation grew by 10 percent in 2011. The service provides an auto refill, and Express Scripts who manages the contract will contact a beneficiary’s doctor to authorize a refill. TRICARE Express RX is a new app which allows beneficiaries to utilize their mobile smart phones to access home delivery services from their phones. More information of this service is available online.

For more information on ROA's legislative efforts involving TRICARE and other service member healthcare issues visit our listing of current issues.