Mideast edition, Sunday, July 1, 2007

Servicemembers have expressed confusion, concern and anger over the Defense Department’s efforts to shake down its ranks to recoup insurance premiums that have, in some cases, gone unpaid for nearly six years.

Attempts to recover as much as $25 million that the DOD says is owed began earlier this year.

Many troops are just now learning about the insurance program they apparently stiffed. The program, known as Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, provides automatic coverage for troops’ spouses and children.

Defense Department and Army officials have not responded to Stars and Stripes’ questions about the collection effort, but more than 26,000 soldiers owe money to the government, according to a U.S. Army Europe memo. Despite a four-month campaign to collect the debts, many soldiers still don’t know if or what they owe, if they know about the program at all.

Until FSGLI first showed up on his pay statement while he was deployed in 2004, “I never knew about it,” Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy S. Herring, a member of the 501st Military Police Company in Wiesbaden, Germany, said in a phone interview.

Herring, a platoon sergeant with 10 years’ service, said he guarantees 99 percent of soldiers who owe unpaid premiums have never heard of FSGLI. He hadn’t either, “As soon as it showed up on my [pay statement], I asked about it,” he said.

What Herring found out is that he and his soldier-wife were automatically enrolled for FSGLI as soon as they got married in March 2002, though neither knew it. For 26 months, they each unwittingly racked up $170 in unpaid premiums. They paid off the debts, but that wasn’t the end of it.

Herring opted out of FSGLI in July 2006, and later that year he and his wife divorced. For almost a year, he was out of the program as far as he knew. But when he got his pay statement for June this year, there it was again: a charge for insurance to cover a wife he doesn’t have.

He’s concerned he’ll be charged for premiums dating back to when he opted out because the Army’s policy says, “I have to prove to them that I canceled it once before,” Herring said. That requires a year-old piece of paper that says he declined the coverage, and he can’t find it.

If troops have been married, haven’t paid the premiums and can’t prove they opted out of FSGLI, they owe the VA for unpaid premiums for every month they were eligible for the insurance, even if they say they weren’t aware of the program, according to the DOD.

The Defense Department hasn’t said how many members of services other than the Army might be affected, but it’s expected that nearly all those who owe are reservists or military personnel married to other servicemembers.

It’s not a significant problem for the Air Force, according to Tech. Sgt. Corey Clements, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. It’s been common practice since 2002, when the service realized dual-military couples weren’t paying FSGLI premiums, to brief airmen about the program and regularly update the records that affect their insurance coverage, he said.

This hasn’t been the case in the Army, contend soldiers who spoke with or contacted Stars and Stripes. A Navy lieutenant commander also wrote in concerned she might owe.

“Trying to collect back premiums for an insurance servicemembers never asked for, signed up for, nor wanted is just plain stealing,” Army Staff Sgt. Theodore A. DiVito, a 1st Cavalry Division soldier in Iraq, wrote to Stripes.

He’d not heard of FSGLI until his sergeant major informed him of the Army’s debt collection efforts in March. It was never mentioned to him when he deployed or when he changed duty stations, and he was never given an opportunity to decline it, he said.

However, his enrollment in another VA-administered, automatic-enrollment insurance program, Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, was checked every time he came or went. He was given multiple opportunities to accept or decline coverage for that.

“One cannot force a service-member to pay for insurance they do not want nor [are told] about,” DiVito wrote. “This comes across as a fraud on the part of the Department of Defense against service personnel.”

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