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Advisory Panels Say Military Benefits Unsustainable
Tom Philpott | August 05, 2010

Advisory Panels Say Military Benefits Unsustainable

A consensus is building among current and former military leaders and defense industry executives that rising military personnel costs threaten the viability of the all-volunteer force.

In July, two separate advisory groups reached the same general conclusions regarding what needs to be done to sustain the force. In the nearer term, they say, one step that must be taken is to make military retirees pay more out of pocket for their health care benefit.

"Unless retirees contribute more for their TRICARE insurance, medical costs will not be brought under control and the national defense they served, and for which they fought and sacrificed, will be harmed," says the final report of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel.

The panel is co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry from the Clinton administration and Stephen J. Hadley who was national security advisor through President George W. Bush's second term.

Longer term, and for the future force, panelists say, work must begin on designing new retirement, compensation and promotion systems to replace inefficient and rigid systems adopted after World War II. The situation is so critical that the Hadley-Perry panel asks Congress to establish a new National Commission on Military Personnel to lead the reform effort.

Arnold Punaro, a defense industry executive and retired Marine Corps Reserve major general, chairs a task force for the Defense Business Board that will deliver its final report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in October.

Task force "initial observations" for cutting defense costs through best business practices, briefed to the board July 22, reinforces the notion that personnel accounts must be brought under control by modernizing retirement, pay, health benefits and the "up-or-out" promotion systems.

Both studies deal with a far wider range of initiatives to restructure forces and streamline organizations. The Hadley-Perry report can be read online at http://www.usip.org/files/qdr/qdrreport.pdf, and task force observations are at http://dbb.defense.gov/meetings.html.

What both conclude on the need to control health costs and modernize compensation systems, Punaro said, is consistent with findings of the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation and the 2006 Defense Advisory Commission on Military Compensation. But now, with Defense Secretary Gates' leadership and a new awareness among military leaders to the burden of mounting personnel costs, there's a fresh groundswell for change, he said.

"I've heard a four-star military leader comment that DoD is turning into a benefits company that will occasionally kill a terrorist," Punaro said in a phone interview Tuesday. The remark plays off a popular critique of General Motors before its recent bail out, that union contracts had transformed it into a health care company that occasionally built a car.

Both the business board task force and the Hadley-Perry panel agree that the current force must be protected from the changes to retirement, pay or promotion policies needed to create a more efficient future force.

"Updating military compensation and redesigning some benefits does not necessitate cuts in pay or benefits for current service members," said the Hadley-Perry report.

"These are areas where any adjustment you make will take decades to change," Punaro said. "With something like military retirement, you are not going to break faith with people who joined expecting a certain benefit, even though only 20 percent stay long enough to earn a retirement."

But rapid expansion of military entitlements has become part of "the nation's mandatory spending problems," the task force found. Among "significant unsustainable trends" that the task force listed is paying military retirees and their families "for 60 years after they have served only 20."

Another task force slide give details of how military entitlements have expanded "rapidly" over the last decade with Congress passing TRICARE for Life, a more robust pharmacy benefit, concurrent receipt for disabled retirees, extra-size active duty pay raises, an improved survivor benefit plan, sharp growth in housing allowances, a bigger death gratuity and more.

Punaro declined to criticize any specific initiative. But, he said, "nobody ever sat down and said, 'What's the cumulative effect of all this?'"

The effect, says the Hadley-Perry report, is personnel costs "have grown drastically on a per capita basis."

As the economy recovers and the job market rebounds, Punaro said, the cost of sustaining the military will accelerate even more.

Punaro, who served as staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee for eight years, noted that much of the recent entitlement growth has helped only retirees and their families, a population that now outnumbers the active duty community.

"TRICARE for Life, the largest new benefit ever passed, was not subject to any kind of serious review or debate, as best as I can tell. Is that the way to pass something like that? And, okay, just because you passed it, does it have to be in existence for 100 years? Bob Gates makes a pretty compelling argument that 'health care costs are eating us alive'."

Punaro criticized military associations that, he said, push continually for benefits with little heed to more pressing defense priorities. Military leaders and lawmakers this decade have been complicit, he suggested.

"It doesn't take a profile in courage to stand up and be for every benefit that anybody has ever dreamed up. That's easy. It takes a lot of courage to be responsible...It looks to some of us that we've changed the slogan 'Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition' to 'Praise the Lord and pass the benefit.' I remember working with military associations when their number one goal was a strong national defense, not more benefits."

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Copyright 2013 Tom Philpott. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.

 
About Tom Philpott

Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families. Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.

Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.