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Forty-one percent of Reserve and National Guard personnel mobilized for active duty see total income fall while away from civilian jobs, according to the Department of Defense's most recent survey of reserve personnel.

The silver lining behind that figure is the self-reported income experience of the other 59 percent. Thirty percent of mobilized reservists see no change in income and 29 percent see income rise because they are on active duty.

Given that almost two-thirds of mobilized reservists suffer no income loss, said Thomas F. Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, DOD has no plan to support a mobilization income insurance program as part of a broader effort to modernize reserve compensation.

Hall also suggested, in a short interview Wednesday, that legislation to lower the age at which reserve retired pay begins, from 60 down to 55, is too expensive to win support from the Bush administration. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost at $26.6 billion over 10 years.

"I've heard the different figures, and it's been from 1 to 2 billion [dollars a year]. It's fair to say there's not money in the budget for that right now," Hall said, moments before testifying on reserve forces before Senate Armed Services Committee.

As Hall testified, just hours before war began with Iraq, the General Accounting Office unveiled preliminary results from the DOD 2000 Survey of Reserve Component Personnel to a panel of the House Armed Services Committee. Last year the committee directed GAO to study the adequacy of income, benefits and employer support for mobilized reservists.

Derek Stewart, GAO's director of defense capabilities and management, commented on income losses using results from the August 2000 survey to which 35,000 drilling reservists responded.

Asked to estimate income change for them and their spouses during recent mobilizations and deployments, 41 percent reported a loss. The average loss across all respondents was $1,700. Medical professionals were hardest hit. Physicians/registered nurses reported average losses of $9,000. That average rose to $25,600 for those who have private practices.

Income loss varied by reserve component, from an average of $600 for Air National Guard members up to $3,800 for Marine Corps reservists. Average income drop was $5,000 for senior officers, $700 for junior enlisted members. About half of drilling reservists said income loss was their most serious problem when mobilized.

Reserves' income drops during the first Persian Gulf War led DOD to propose, and Congress to enact, a mobilization income insurance program in 1996. But the plan was poorly designed and managed. Relatively few reservists signed up. Most who did had deployment orders in hand for Bosnia.

In return for a modest premium, they immediately began drawing up to $5000 a month in replacement income, even if they suffered no income loss. The plan was to be self-sustaining. It ended up costing taxpayers $112 million by the time Congress shut it down in November 1997.

Tricare's wartime test

The William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, lost a quarter of its medical staff this month when they got orders to deploy to the Persian Gulf as part of the 31st Combat Support Hospital.

Col. Glenn W. Mitchell, WBAMC's commander, said more than 200 of his staff, from equipment technicians to surgeons, are gone. Until reserve and contracted personnel arrive to replace some, though not all, of the missing staff, the medical center and its patients are feeling the strain.

"I've got this window of two weeks, maybe three, of real hurt in this valley, where I'm waiting for reinforcements from the reserves and from contracts [with civilian physicians and nurses] ... I'll be back up to 80, maybe 85 percent of strength overall [and] be able to handle a really good percentage of my previous workload."

Until then, Mitchell said, "a lot of my folks are working 12 hours on, 12 hours off, five days a week."

For Tricare, however, "it's really a good news story. The system actually works," Mitchell said.

Patients who can't get appointments are offered help finding a doctor in the Tricare network, which locally is robust except in certain specialties.

"If you have a dermatology problem, it's going to be a fairly long time trying to get [it treated] downtown," said Mitchell. "But, in general, docs have rallied downtown. They understand the situation. ... Downtown hospitals are just bending over backwards to help."

Still, many retirees prefer to postpone elective surgery or to wait additional weeks for an appointment rather than go outside, said Mitchell.

"It's a brand loyalty thing," he said. "They love us; we know that. But the system is set up so that when my capacity has problems, like it does now, the network sucks it up."

The exodus of nurses and support staff will be even tougher for WBAMC to handle than missing physicians, Mitchell said.

"The nursing shortage is acute here in El Paso, and medics are extremely hard to come by ... When our medics leave and all of our young technical staff leave, it is really pretty difficult."

More medical personnel have deployed from Bliss than war games suggested would be needed, said Mitchell. "I could lose up to 400 people."

The burden on WBAMC's depleted staff is made heavier by medical processing of 10,000 active and reserve forces moving through Bliss.

Every one of them, said Mitchell, "have to have a medical checkup, a review of medical records, an eye exam and a hearing test."

Comments and suggestions are welcomed. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or send e-mail to: milupdate@aol.com

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