Lawmakers Align on 3.1% Pay Raise, Efforts to Slow Cuts to Military Medical Billets

Lt. Cmdr. James Wallace, surgeon for the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), teaches a group of Hospital Corpsman how to suture in the ship's medical department. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher R. Jahnke)
Lt. Cmdr. James Wallace, surgeon for the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), teaches a group of Hospital Corpsman how to suture in the ship's medical department. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher R. Jahnke)

An early draft of the House's defense authorization bill contains measures designed to "take care of service members and their families," including a 3.1% pay raise, a proposed food subsidy for needy troops and requirements that the Pentagon track health issues related to military housing, burn pits and blast exposure.

The National Defense Authorization Act draft being considered Tuesday by the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee also seeks to delay Pentagon plans to eliminate 18,000 uniformed health positions until studies on the initiative's impact are complete.

It also would alter Defense Department policies to encourage personnel to report sexual-assault crimes and speed up the process for prosecuting those who commit such crimes.

The 3.1% pay raise in the proposed legislation mirrors the draft defense authorization bill approved by Senate Armed Services Committee last month, as well as the House Appropriations Committee's draft spending bill, the strongest signal yet that service members will see their largest pay raise in a decade next year.

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The personnel subcommittee's mark also supports the administration's request on military end strength, with the Army at 480,000; the Navy at 340,500; the Air Force at 332,800; and 186,200 Marines.

Last month, however, House appropriators signaled they plan to reduce active-duty end strength by 2,000, all from the Army. The appropriations legislation ultimately decides the amount of funding the Pentagon will receive to pay for troops.

As with the House Appropriations Committee, the personnel subcommittee seeks to rein in the Pentagon's plans to reduce its military medical billets by roughly 18,000 uniformed doctors, nurses, medics and corpsmen, changing them to civilian or contract jobs or eliminating some altogether.

The Defense Health Agency has not released details on how many of these billets would evaporate, and lawmakers want to see a detailed study on health care availability and the proposed realignment before allowing the DoD or the services to take any steps to reduce medical manning.

Other personnel initiatives under consideration by the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee include a measure to provide a basic needs allowance to troops whose families require food assistance. The plan would support personnel who may not qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was eliminated for some troops several years ago.

The draft bill also would increase military families' access to child care by allowing the services to hire child care workers more easily and would direct the DoD to study the feasibility of providing an allowance for off-base child care. It would allow the Pentagon to provide financial assistance to civilian child care providers who watch Gold Star family children.

Some measures in the draft bill are meant to reduce the number of sexual assaults in the military and improve prosecution of such crimes. It would expand the DoD's Special Victims' Counsel program to include domestic violence victims, require the Pentagon to hire more criminal investigators for sexual crimes, and make it easier for service academy students who are victims of sexual assault to transfer universities.

The proposed legislation, however, does not include a Pentagon request to make sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said last month he needs congressional approval to make the behavior a crime. The Senate draft bill contains such language, but House Armed Services staffers said they did not receive the request early enough to include it in the House version of the bill.

The draft measure also seeks to address several health concerns for military service members and their families: It would require the DoD to provide metrics on suicide prevention programs to Congress each year; mandate the Pentagon develop tools to measure the health and safety of military housing; and record burn pit and blast exposure in service members' medical records.

It also would require the DoD to provide a report on the projected number of service members who may be affected by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE -- the brain disease associated with multiple concussions, seen in professional football and hockey players.

The House Armed Services personnel subcommittee will consider the draft bill Tuesday with the full committee expected to take it up later this month. Once the entire House passes the bill, it will then need to be reconciled with the Senate's version of the National Defense Authorization bill before becoming law.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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