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Military members will get a 3.9 percent pay raise in January, but the fiscal 2009 defense authorization nearing final passage will not support a House-passed plan to set military pay raises through 2013 a half percentage point higher than private sector wage growth.

The new defense bill will protect working-age military retirees from a final try by the Bush administration to raise Tricare fees, deductibles and drug co-payments. Instead, beneficiaries of every age will see new enticements to stay healthy through no-fee check-ups, age-appropriate disease screening, smoking cessation help and other “wellness” programs.

And, for a fourth straight year, the full Congress will not adopt a Senate-passed plan to restore full Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payment to 55,000 widows who see them reduced, dollar for dollar, by Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The defense policy bill, which cleared the House in final form Wednesday, was moving toward swift Senate approval. Congressional leaders, dealing with a financial crisis and re-election campaigns, shelved a traditional method of negotiating differences between House and Senate versions of the bill.

In years past, chairmen and ranking members of the armed services committees nominated lawmakers to serve on a conference committee, which then ironed out any House-Senate disparities to shape a final compromise. Conferee appointments were made by unanimous consent.

This year, fiscally conservative Senate Republicans, frustrated in their attempt to remove defense bill earmarks, opposed the consent agreement and blocked formation of a conference committee. So bill managers decided on another course. House leaders took the Senate-passed bill (S 3001) and added provisions unique to the House bill. Items that stayed in or got tossed had been worked out informally between the armed services committees.

The resulting $534.1 billion bill quickly passed the House. It was expected to clear the Senate and be signed by the president by Sept. 30.

Here are some personnel-related highlights in the bill:

##Pay raise

The 3.9 percent increase for active duty members, reserve component personnel and academy cadets will be the 10th consecutive raise to exceed private sector wage growth by 0.5 percent.

##Force strength

Army’s active force will climb by 7000 soldiers to reach 534,200 a year from now. The Marine Corps will gain 5000 to reach 194,000. Air Force strength will fall by 12,513 to hit 317,050. The Navy will shed 2775 sailors to slide down to 326,323.

##Preventive care

The bill embraces a four-part House plan for lowering Tricare costs by encouraging health screens and healthier lives:

It will waive any Tricare co-payments now charged for preventive services including colorectal screening, breast screening, cervical screening, prostate screening, annual physical exams and vaccinations;It mandates a new cost-free smoking cessation program for non-Medicare-eligible beneficiaries to include counseling, support groups, toll-free quit lines and nicotine-replacement drugs;The military will test on 1,500 members the effectiveness of a “preventive health allowance” -- $500 per individual or $1,000 per family -- payable if they take full advantage of preventive health care services;Three Tricare Prime areas will test health risk management techniques on younger retirees and their families to include a thorough wellness assessment, and new monetary and non-monetary incentives, to determine what works to change unhealthy behaviors.##Chiropractic health

Chiropractic services will be provided to deployed services members under a demonstration program. Also, by Sept. 30, 2009, chiropractic services will be offered to active duty members at 11 additional military treatment facilities where there is none now.

##Tricare Reserve Select

Premiums paid by drilling reservists and families for TRS coverage will be lowered in 2009 to match actual program costs. Premiums for member-only coverage should fall to about $47 a month from $81. Family coverage premiums should fall from $253 down to $175.

##Lodging expense

Military travelers will see maximum temporary lodging expense (TLE) reimbursements raised to $290 per day from $180.

##Spouse employment

The Defense Department will be authorized to pay tuition assistance to spouses of active duty service members for education and training programs that expand their job opportunities.

##Special weight allowance

The services will be allowed to pay an additional weight allowance on change-of-station moves of up to 500 pounds to ship professional books and equipment of military spouses.

##Foreign language incentives

The services will be able to pay a language skill proficiency bonus of up to $12,000 a year to members enrolled in an officer training program or the Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps program if acquiring proficiency in a critical foreign language or expert training in foreign cultural studies.

##General officer management

The Secretary of Defense will be authorized to designate up to 324 general and flag officer joint duty positions that will not count against service star-rank authorizations, and to take steps to improve the quality of officers in such positions. Also, the Army will be authorized five more general officers and the Marine Corps one more.

##Flag salute

Members of the armed forces not in uniform and veterans will be authorized to render a military salute in the same manner as members in uniform during the playing of the national anthem

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