HASC Chairman's Top NDAA Priorities: Improving Racial Equality and Fixing Health Care

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U.S. Rep. Adam Smit is briefed on the capabilities of the F-35A Lightning II.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, is briefed on the capabilities of the F-35A Lightning II during his visit at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Oct. 10, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Jensen Stidham)

The current House defense policy bill contains a cluster of provisions to improve opportunities for minorities in the armed forces -- measures that House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said are a top priority for passage.

The defense bill, which will be debated Wednesday by the committee, would provide $3 million in scholarships at minority institutions for students engaged in the Defense Department's Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation, or SMART, program.

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And it would give $17 million to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, and other minority institutions in an effort to diversify the national security workforce.

The bill also would require the military departments to submit a report summarizing the gender and race of each officer recommended on a list for promotion for the pay grades O-4 and above.

In a phone call with members of the Defense Writers Group Tuesday from Washington, D.C., Smith said the funding is needed because "there is statistically disparate treatment of people of color and others within the [Uniform Code of Military Justice]."

"Also in terms of hiring and promotion. We aren't doing enough there," Smith said.

More measures to improve equality in the U.S. military are expected to be introduced when the committee convenes Wednesday. After the committee approves the bill, it will have to pass the House and be reconciled with the Senate's final version, which also contains proposals aimed at improving diversity within the Defense Department.

The current Senate bill would require the Defense Department to conduct an in-depth study on the racial, ethnic and gender composition of units, the participation rates of minority populations in certain units and a review of minority leadership at the general officer level, as well as identify barriers to minority accession and training.

The Senate bill also would require the military services to expand their Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at several historically black colleges and universities and minority institutions for at least five years under pilot programs.

In the wake of the May 25 killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd while in police custody and the growing call to recognize the discrimination Americans of color often face in education, employment and their communities, Defense Secretary Mark Esper this month announced a package of military-wide initiatives to improve diversity.

DoD has established a Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military, a group assigned to develop recommendations to increase racial diversity and ensure equal opportunity in the ranks.

It also plans to stand up a Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services, similar to the successful Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, established nearly 70 years ago.

In the past month, the individual services also have announced steps to improve diversity and quash racism in the ranks. The Army, which established a diversity office in 2005, announced this month it would stop using photos in promotion board applications to reduce bias. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday announced the formation of a Navy task force on racial equality. The Air Force, whose chief of staff, Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown is the first African American ever to lead a military branch, increased the size of scholarships for ROTC students attending an HBCU or Hispanic-serving institution. And the Marine Corps became the first service to ban the Confederate flag from military bases.

Lawmakers have said they want the services to be the source of change within their ranks and have encouraged DoD to "recognize there is more work to be done."

"We are at a transformational point in this country, civilian and military wise," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., during a hearing of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee this month. "And I think there's a lot of work to do."

Smith said Tuesday that in addition to improving racial equality across DoD, his other top personnel priority for the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act is the military health system, which is undergoing a consolidation and reform effort initiated in 2017.

As part of the changes, the Defense Health Agency is assuming management of the military services' hospitals and clinics and the service medical commands are shifting focus from caring for service members, families and retirees to treating only uniformed personnel.

The House bill currently contains a provision to delay the changes until the Pentagon provides Congress with an update of its medical staffing and plan to shift more retirees and family members to Tricare.

"I see the merit of what they are talking about doing in merging [the system] together ... but I need a better understanding. Reconciling that would certainly be at the top of the list," Smith said.

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

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