Guard and Reserve Members Face Dual Struggles Due to Coronavirus Response

Michigan Army National Guard soldiers distribute over 20,000 pounds of food in west Michigan.
Soldiers from the 1433rd Engineer Company (SAPPER), 507th Engineer Battalion, 177th Military Police Brigade, Michigan Army National Guard, assist Feeding American West Michigan Food Bank by distributing over 20,000 pounds of food which can serve close to 400 families in need in west Michigan during a recent mobile food distribution event as part of the Michigan National Guard's COVID-19 response, Kentwood, Michigan, April 2, 2020. (Master Sgt. David Eichaker/Air National Guard)

The nationwide pandemic response is challenging members of the National Guard and Reserve on two fronts.

On one hand, thousands of National Guard members have been activated in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. On the other hand, many Guard and Reserve bases have halted Unit Training Assemblies (UTAs) for the near future, leaving bases manned only by mission-critical personnel.

Both of these extremes are causing issues among Guard and Reserve personnel.

Guard Members Have Been Activated. But Many Aren't Eligible for Full Benefits

According to the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), "Authorities are currently only allowing states and territories to put their Guardsmen on orders in increments of 30 days."

This inherently limits the benefits Guard members are eligible to receive during their period of activation.

National Guard members need to be on orders for 31 or more days in order to be eligible for Tricare Prime and other benefits, such as full Basic Allowance for Housing. Those who are activated for 30 or fewer days will not receive Tricare benefits and will receive BAH Type II, or non-locality BAH, which is often a less-valuable housing allowance.

Members of the Reserve component who are on orders of 31 days or more should be automatically switched to Tricare Prime. However, this is not automatic for those who are on orders of 30 days or less, even if those orders get extended.

The current situation requires Guard members to rely upon their current medical coverage at a time when they are being put on the front lines of an epidemic.

In addition, there are no current plans to provide additional Tricare coverage for activated Guard members after they return to a traditional drill status. NGAUS is requesting that the Defense Department to provide transitional health care coverage for members after they return from COVID-19 missions.

The Rest of the National Guard and Reserves Are on Standby and Aren't Drilling

In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, most Guard and Reserve installations are closed to all but mission-critical personnel. This keeps the installations up and running and allows them to notify reservists about any mission or status changes.

But these units have stopped UTAs and drills for the near future. Currently, each branch of the military is independently handling Guard and Reserve drill cancellations. The Navy, for example, has paused all Reserve training assemblies through May 11, which was the original cutoff date for the military's stop-movement order. Military officials have since announced their intent to extend the order; however, no end date has been announced. As a result, future drill dates are still in limbo.

These drill cancellations make it difficult for Guardsmen and reservists to meet the training and service requirements necessary to qualify for certain benefits or earn service credit toward retirement.

Each service member must earn 50 points each retention year in order to qualify for a Good Year toward retirement.

While it is possible to earn points outside of drill assemblies, there are few opportunities in the current environment. Some units are allowing personnel to telework, but these opportunities do not apply to all service members. The DoD has also encouraged the liberal use of training waivers for certain annual training requirements.

However, it is yet to be seen how the DoD will address the issue of those service members who will not be able to earn the minimum 50 points required to earn a year of credit toward retirement.

Health Care and Life Insurance Benefits Won't Be Affected

In good news, members of the Reserve component will not see cancellations of their Tricare or Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI), even if they are not currently able to attend monthly drills.

Guardsmen and Reservists pay for their Tricare out of pocket via automatic withdrawal from their bank account, or via payments from their debit or credit card. Tricare has announced it will not cancel any benefits for non-payment until 90 days after the declared COVID-19 emergency response officially ends. However, the premiums are still required to be paid during this time and must be made up in a lump sum at the end of the 90-day window to prevent the member from being disenrolled from Tricare.

SGLI premium payments are made as an allotment from the service member's paycheck. When service members are not paid, the SGLI runs a deficit that will be withheld from the service member's paycheck the next time they are paid. The SGLI program will simply make a lump-um withdrawal for the premium payments that were missed.

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