Military Update: GI Bill education benefit inequity needs fixing, lawmaker says
Special to Stars and Stripes
Reserve and National Guard members mobilized for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are discovering an inequity in their GI Bill education benefits that needs to be fixed, says Arkansas Rep. Vic Snyder, senior Democrat on the House armed services’ subcommittee on military personnel.
“It’s unconscionable how these young men and women are being treated now that they have served their nation in time of war [and] completed their enlistment contract,” said Snyder.
Snyder had served in the Marine Corps just over 21 months, including 13 months in Vietnam. In return, he received 45 months of GI Bill benefits, enough to complete two years of college and three years of evening classes.
Today, active-duty members who buy into the Montgomery GI Bill also do pretty well with postservice education benefits.
But consider the experience of Reserve and Guard members, said Snyder. An initial commitment of up to six years can include up to two years of involuntary active duty, with a year or more in a combat zone. Yet reservists who leave service after completing their obligations forfeit any unused Reserve GI Bill benefits.
Because Reserve MGIB was designed mostly as a retention tool, only members who stay in drill status, subject to call up, can use education benefits. In wartime, Snyder said, this is “terribly unfair.”
Twenty years ago, when Congress established Reserve MGIB, it was “fairly rare for people to be activated,” Snyder said in a phone interview. “And even if they were, it was not going to be for a long period of time. That obviously is dramatically different now.”
Wartime mobilization not only deepens the sacrifice of reservists but limits their window of time for using Reserve education benefits.
“They are put in situations where they are not going to be able to go to school,” Snyder said. “You say, ‘You can only use this benefit while in the reserves. Oh, by the way, for the next 18 months we’re going to put you in places where you ain’t going to go to school.’”
Snyder pounded on the issue during a subcommittee hearing this month. Witnesses included Dr. David S.C. Chu, the Defense Department’s top manpower official, and the service personnel chiefs. Chu promised Snyder that the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, a yearlong study of military pay and benefits, will review the need for modifying Reserve GI Bill benefits. Chu noted that Congress “did pass at the president’s request an enhanced benefit for those mobilizing in support of current contingencies.”
He was referring to the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP), approved in 2004. Under REAP, members mobilized for 90 days or more since Sept. 11, 2001, get extra education benefits. Rather than payments set at 29 percent of active-duty MGIB, REAP benefits equal 40, 60 or 80 percent of active-duty MGIB, depending on length of activation. But like Reserve MGIB, unused REAP benefits stop when a member leaves service.
So, said Snyder, a reservist today can spend about as long on active duty and in a war zone as Snyder did 30 years ago “and get nothing [from the] GI Bill when they get out of the service.”
Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman, deputy Marine Corps commandant, agreed the disparity is unfair and should be addressed by the 10th QRMC.
Snyder spoke in favor of other changes to Reserve MGIB being pushed by service associations. One would raise the basic Reserve benefit to equal half the value of active duty MGIB. Another would mend a jurisdictional split in the oversight and funding of active duty and reserve GI Bill programs. The split exists in law between congressional committees and also between the departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs.
The subcommittee plans a separate hearing on GI Bill issues. That won’t have occurred before April 26, however, when the panel will begin marking up the 2007 defense authorization bill.
Health Savings Accounts
What military retiree would forfeit Tricare benefits for the chance to build a nest egg and enjoy some tax breaks through use of a Health Savings Account (HSA) combined with a high deductible health insurance plan?
Defense officials want to find out. They have asked Congress for authority to begin a pilot program for military retirees under age 65 who want to enroll in one the HSAs being offered to federal civilian employees.
With HSAs, as with conventional health insurance for federal civilians, the government pays roughly 72 percent of premiums. With HSAs, it also must pay 72 percent of the savings account contributions. Plan enrollees pay the other 28 percent of both premiums and contributions. Total contributions often are set to cover all out-of-pocket medical expenses up to the amount of the deductible, which can be as high as $5,250 for individual coverage or $10,500 for families.
Savings accounts that have balances after the first year, either because the family is healthy or it used health care prudently, can continue to grow with monthly contributions the next year to cover expenses below the deductible.
Defense officials couldn’t say what type of retiree might be enticed to forfeit Tricare and enroll in an HSA. Congressional staff members and service association representatives also were stumped.
Some suggested the idea for military HSAs came from the White House. President Bush has touted HSAs as a way to make U.S. health care more affordable. Critics say HSAs are attractive only to “the wealthy and healthy,” which can impact the risk pool and result in higher premiums for more conventional health plans.
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