- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The American Legion, one of the nation’s largest veterans advocacy groups, said Wednesday that it opposes major reforms to military health care and retirement proposed earlier this year by a commission charged with fixing the military benefits system.

The group said it rejected the two most substantial changes to retirement and health care recommended in the 280-page Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission report released in January because they could make it more difficult for service members and veterans to navigate new, potentially confusing systems.

The commission recommended instituting a 401(k)-like plan for military retirement, where troops pay into the system and the government matches the contributions up to 5 percent. This would allow the majority of service members who don’t serve the full 20 years to leave the service with some retirement benefits, they argued.

Michael Helm, national commander of the American Legion, said that the proposed retirement changes would allow service members to make risky decisions with their retirement that could leave them destitute. For example, a service member could take his or her entire retirement pay as a lump sum to start a new business, but if the business fails, the veteran could be left with nothing.

“There are too many questions about the implementation and concerns about how service members would be affected,” Mr. Helm write in a letter to leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Despite rejecting the commissions proposal, Mr. Helm acknowledged that it would be beneficial to find a way to give the roughly 80 percent of service members who leave the military before the 20-year mark some retirement benefits.

President Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders in March that he “fully supports the underlying objectives” of the commission’s report.

A team of administration officials is currently reviewing the recommendations in more depth and is expected to report to Congress on its findings by April 30.

The commission also urged Congress to eliminate Tricare for active duty family members, National Guard and reserve service members and middle-aged retirees who are not covered by Tricare for Life. These groups would choose health insurance from a selection of private health insurance plans, with active duty family members receiving a stipend to cover both premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

The Legion also opposes this change, since it’s unclear how frequent moves and out-of-country assignments would be handled under the new system.

“Military families have never had to confront the sometimes bewildering array of choices inherent in selecting plans, and may be unequipped and untrained to make the proper choices,” Mr. Helm wrote. “A radical paradigm shift of this nature would require extensive education, outreach and training for members of the military, their spouses and families.”

The commission made a total of 15 recommendations on issues from better collaboration between the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department to reforming education benefits to making transition assistance programs mandatory. Overall, the American Legion opposes four, has no position on six and supports five, including financial literacy courses for service members designed to help them take advantage of other reforms that the Legion opposes.

The commission was formed by the 2013 annual defense policy bill to examine the military benefits and retirement system after military leaders acknowledged personnel costs were overrunning the rest of their budgets. The 9-member commission recommended the modernization changes after more than a year of town halls and meetings with stake holders across the country.

Immediately after the recommendations were released, Congress held a series of hearings, but it’s unclear if lawmakers intend to move forward on any of the commission’s proposals.

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