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Military Update: Active-duty retirees die sooner than reservists, actuaries say

By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 17, 2009

Department of Defense actuaries have discovered significantly higher mortality rates among active duty retirees compared to reserve retirees, and the disparity stretches back decades.

In any given year, looking at populations of non-disabled military retirees age 60 and older, the death rate for active duty enlisted retirees is 20 to 25 percent higher than for reserve enlisted retirees. Active duty officer retirees who are 60 and older die in numbers roughly 10 percent higher than retired reserve peers.

All retired officers, and retired reserve enlisted members, still live a few years longer, on average, than the general population. But for retired active duty enlisted, it’s about even with other Americans.

Defense officials haven’t done a study to explain death rate differences among military retirees. Speculation centers on stresses of full time service including past wars, frequent moves, constant physical activity to stay in shape, and stress-induced habits such as smoking and alcohol consumption.

Another possible factor, one official acknowledged, is that active duty retirees rely for decades on military health care. That’s not a knock on the care but on the fact that patients and doctors are reassigned frequently and continuity of care can suffer compared to what reservists experience.

The mortality rate differences were revealed during a DoD Board of Actuaries meeting last August. They were presented to support a recommendation that retirement cost projections should begin to use dual mortality rates, one for active duty retirees and a lower rate for reserves.

The board accepted the change. But one board member was unnerved by the finding of different mortality rates in the military retiree population.

“Are you startled by this? I was,” John Hartnedy told fellow board members and policy advisers at the meeting, according to a transcript. Later that day, after more board business, Hartnedy reopened the issue.

“I just can’t get this mortality difference out of my head,” he said, calling higher death rates for active duty retirees “very troublesome.”

“Is there something out there that we can do, or that we can look at, to maybe explain this a little bit?” Hartnedy asked. It “just troubles me to no end that our active life military retirees are dying off at a rate like that.”

Peter Rossi, one of the DoD actuaries who compiled and analyzed the numbers, was there last August to share results with the board. In several recent phone interviews, Rossi has explained what he and colleagues found.

They looked back to the mid-1970s in calculating mortality rates for non-disabled reserve retirees, who retire at age 60, and active duty retirees. Though active duty members can retire after 20 years, only deaths of retirees 60 and older were used to make rate comparisons with reserves.

Controlling for gender differences and also for whether retirees are rated as disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the actuaries still found sharp differences in death rates, particularly between enlisted retirees.

In fiscal years 2004 and 2005, for example, the proportion of deaths reported among active duty officer retirees, 60 and older, was 10 percent higher than for reserve officer retirees. The rate difference was 22 percent for active duty enlisted retirees versus enlisted reserve retirees.

“The 22 [percent] gets you into a range where you really start to raise eyebrows,” said Jack Luff, experience studies actuary at Society of Actuaries’ headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill. “That’s worth looking into further because it’s more than you would expect.”

Rossi also produced average life expectancy comparisons. In 2004, for instance, 60-year-old active duty enlisted retirees had an average life expectancy of 19.6 years. That was nearly two years short of life expectancy (21.5 years) for reserve enlisted retirees. How significant is two years?

“Very,” Rossi conceded. He noted that the life expectancy difference between male and females in the general population at age 60 is three to four years. So a two-year spread between reserve and active duty enlisted retirees at 60 is “a big difference,” he said.

“We all know that if you’re a man [and have] a spouse of the same age, she is going to outlive you. But active and reserve, same age, and we have a significant probability the reservist is going to outlive the active duty member? That is startling,” Rossi said.

Luff concurred, pointing out that two years is also the life expectancy gap at 60 between a woman who smokes cigarettes and one who doesn’t.

The life expectancy gap at 60 for officers also favors reservists over active duty retirees, by nearly a year, 24 versus 23.1. But both groups live longer from age 60 than Americans in general. That average life expectancy at 60 is just under 20 years if gender weighted to match military retirees.

Tom Bush, a senior policy official for reserve affairs, suggested to the board last August that more active duty retirees might have used tobacco or alcohol more often than did reservists. Hartnedy suggested post-traumatic stress might be a factor, even controlling for VA-rated disabilities.

“I would think that kind of mental strain” from years on active duty “would have an impact…very long term, after retiring,” he said.

The board’s discussion shifted to whether frequent reactivation of Reserve and Guard personnel to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan will result, years from now, in a rising death rates for reserve retirees.

“Maybe that mortality [rate] would converge to the same number” with wartime deployments by reservist, Rossi suggested at the meeting.

“Unfortunately,” Luff told me this week, “that’s a probable conclusion.”

If mortality rates do climb for reserve retirees, said Hartnedy, “it may tell us something about how we treat them when they come back.”

Bush assured the board that the department and the services were reaching out to returning veterans to find and treat stress-related conditions.

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