Defense bill has gains, losses in benefits

By Tom Philpott, Special to Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Saturday, October 10, 2009
 
The last decision made by House-Senate conferees negotiating final details on a fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill Tuesday was to insert language that will roll back an announced Oct. 1 increase in fees charged to TRICARE Standard beneficiaries for stays in civilian hospitals.  The surprise fee increases, which were reported here last week, gave lawmakers a chance to ride to the rescue and, in effect, put a cherry atop the $680.2 billion defense policy bill, at least for working-age military retirees and their families who would have seen a $110-a-day bump in hospital bills.  That was a fortuitous opportunity for the armed services committees because other pay and benefit initiatives in the bill are relatively modest compared to past years. And the gains are dampened by some too-familiar legislative disappointments for servicemembers, veterans and their families.  One new disappointment is that the Democrat-led Congress couldn’t find money to support President Barack Obama’s call to phase in “concurrent receipt” for disabled retirees who are forced by ailments or injuries to leave service before completing 20 years of service.  His plan would have boosted the pay of 103,000 “Chapter 61” retirees at a cost of $5.4 billion over 10 years. The House alone had voted to take the first step, using dollars freed up from an energy appropriation, to expand the Concurrent Receipt and Disability Pay program Jan. 1 to retirees with fewer than 20 years and disability ratings of 100 percent or 90 percent.  But Senate conferees concluded it would violate Senate budget rules to take even a first step in Obama’s phase-in plan without proper funding.
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