WASHINGTON -- Buried in the 1,915-page defense policy bill are significant changes that could affect more than 1 million members of the military and their families.
The House has passed the $612 billion bill. The Senate is scheduled to vote this week.
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation as part of a larger budget debate.
Some highlights of the defense measure pertaining to members of the armed forces and their families:
It would put in place, in 2018, a new retirement system for service members. Under the current one, 83 percent of service members leave the force without any retirement benefit because they did not serve at least 20 years. According to the new plan, service members can put a percentage of their pay into 401(k)-type accounts and the government will match those contributions up to 5 percent over 26 years.
The current force will be grandfathered into the existing system. Starting in 2018, those with fewer than 12 years of service can opt into the new system. Those with 12 years or more cannot because they probably would end up receiving a smaller retirement benefit than under the current system.
To offset the cost of the government matching payments into the Thrift Savings Plans, the regular retirement pay is being reduced for those enrolled in the new plan. When service members currently get ready to retire, their benefit is calculated by multiplying the average of their last three years of pay by 2.5. That multiplier would be reduced to two. Those who invest in their plan could make up that difference.
Those in the reserves now have to wait until they are 60 for their retirement benefit. Under the new legislation, they can take 25 percent or 50 percent of their benefit when they reach 20 years of service. That would offer them the money if they are moving into a new career, starting a business or trying to pay college expenses for their children.
For basic pay, a 1.3 percent increase. Lawmakers decided to let it set itself at 2.3 percent through an automatic calculation based on a government cost index. But the president has the authority to set the increase, and earlier this year, he put it at 1.3 percent. The troops got 1 percent raises in both 2014 and 2015. Service organizations aren't happy.
Retired Navy Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America, said "a 1.3 percent pay raise is below private-sector pay growth and continues a worrying trend of capping pay for a third consecutive year."
GUNS ON BASE
In a response to attacks on defense personnel, including those in Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas, lawmakers want to require the defense secretary to implement a new policy by year's end on carrying personal firearms on base. The bill makes it clear that post commanders are empowered to let members of the armed forces carry government-issued or personal firearms on military installations, reserve centers or recruiting stations if it's determined that carrying such a firearm "is necessary as a personal or force-protection measure."
Higher costs for prescription drugs. These increases would affect retirees the most because active-duty members would continue to get their drugs free at military treatment facilities. Under the bill, the co-pay for drugs bought at retail drug stores would increase from $8 to $10 for generic and $20 to $24 for brand-name prescriptions. The co-pay on brand-name drugs also would go up for mail-order prescriptions.
Some service members who retire have found that the drugs they had been prescribed in the Defense Department medical system are not on the Department of Veterans Affairs' drug list. This is an especially critical problem for people being treated for pain, sleep disorders or psychiatric problems with medicine or a combination of drugs that doctors worked hard to personalize for the patient. The bill directs the VA and DoD to merge their drug lists to eliminate the loss of continuity in treatment and the need to change medications that are working.
The Defense Department is directed to come up with a plan to clear wait times -- currently greater than three months -- during the next three years. The goal is to improve access to child care on military installations to make sure it can be provided within 90 days. More than 200,000 children receive child care at Defense Department facilities. As of September 2014, the department reported that there were more than 11,000 children on waiting lists.
The bill would expand the opportunity for the spouse and children of service members to fly, unaccompanied, on military aircraft if there's room. Before, dependents were allowed to fly if the service member was deployed for more than 120 days. To ease the strain of extended deployments, the legislation would let them fly if their service member is deployed for 30 days or more. Multiple deployments are common in today's military.
The bill would gradually decrease the basic allowance for housing 1 percent a year for four years so service members end up paying 5 percent of their rent and utility costs in 2019.
The legislation would preserve the housing allowance for dual military couples. It does not include a provision that would have drastically cut the allowance for uniformed service members who are married to one another, and limit it for those who choose to share housing with other members.
Service members currently cannot go to an urgent care clinic without getting a referral from their primary care physician. The bill would permit them to seek nonemergency care on weekends, for example, at urgent care centers.