- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

My husband served for 24 years in the Air Force. It is bad enough that we can’t get the free medical care that was promised us. My husband heard a rumor at work that Tricare Prime was going to increase our premium to $900 a year instead of the $450 we pay now. Is this true? A lot of retirees can’t afford that.

Irene R.

Dear Irene:

The following letter speaks to your concern. Military retirees are once again bearing the brunt of spiraling health-care costs.

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

By now you have probably heard that the Department of Defense (DoD) proposes to raise the Tricare fees for those military retirees under age 65. They also want to raise the pharmacy fees, and this will affect Medicare-eligible military retirees and active duty/Guard/Reserve families, as well.

In some cases, the proposed fees would be double or triple what they are now. Apparently, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff support these raises because, with a politically constrained DoD budget, they believe that retiree medical care costs are keeping them from buying hardware and are becoming a readiness issue.

We are surprised that DoD leaders seem to be forgetting their history. In past years, when the leadership started cutting future retirement benefits, those on active duty — and they are very smart people — eventually ended up “voting with their feet.” People who should, and could, have stayed in got out when the DoD began playing with the REDUX retirement system, which cut benefits for those who joined the military on or after Aug. 1, 1986.

You may recall that the REDUX law had to be repealed in 1999, when service leaders at that time complained that it was hurting retention and readiness.

The military is not General Motors Corp. While industry is offloading more health-care expenses on their employees, our service members have far more arduous conditions of service — deployments, hostile environments, family separations, 24-hour duty, forfeiture of some civil liberties, the inability to leave the job quickly if not satisfied and many more.

Military health care, retirement and other institutional benefits are the primary offsets that our nation offers for those unique and extraordinary demands. Budget people love to go after these programs because they are easy, short-term targets. The current leaders and budgeteers focus on current problems and usually won’t be around to deal with future recruiting and retention consequences caused by budgetary shortsightedness.

Congress funds what it wants to fund. The current administration advocates a strong national defense. It’s time for all leadership to remember history and realize that strong national defense comes at a cost — now or later. America can afford both weapons and military health care. Political leaders should not be putting the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the position of having to choose between them.

Sincerely,

Vice Adm. Norb Ryan Jr.

President, Military Officers Association of America

Shaft notes

Changes in the VA Home Loan Guarantee limits mean veterans are able to get no-down-payment loans up to $417,000. The previous ceiling was $359,650.

“For more than 60 years, VA has assisted our veterans to become homeowners,” said Jim Nicholson, secretary of veterans affairs. “This increase is another example of our commitment to ensure VA benefits keep pace with the needs of our veterans in today’s housing market.”

The Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004 tied increases in the VA guaranty to increases in the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation’s conforming loan limit. When this limit increases, VA guaranty limits also go up, allowing the VA to keep pace with rising home values.

Banks and mortgage companies make VA-guaranteed home loans to veterans, service members and reservists. With the VA guaranteeing a portion of the loan, veterans can receive a competitive interest rate without making a down payment.

More information about VA home-loan benefits is available at http://www.homeloans.va.gov or by calling 800/827-1000.

• Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao recently announced the publication of rules for the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, known as USERRA. Written in plain English and in a question-and-answer format, the new regulations will, for the first time, clarify employer and employee rights and responsibilities under this law.

USERRA protects the civilian jobs and benefits of members of the uniformed services, including National Guard and Reserve members serving on active duty.

U.S. Department of Labor releases are accessible at www.dol.gov.

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, PO Box 65900, Washington, D.C. 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330; call 202/257-5446; or e-mail sgtshaft@bavf.org.

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