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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2002

Bush budget advances 'targeting' plan for raises

Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.

By Tom Philpott

Most career enlisted men and women, commissioned officers in a couple of ranks, and warrant officers in grades W-1 to W-3 are in line for basic pay raises of 5 to 6.5 percent next year, if Congress agrees to the Bush administration's new "targeting" plan.

A 4.1 percent raise is proposed for others in the armed forces — a half percentage point higher than wage growth in the private sector.

Federal civilian employees are to get at least a 2.6 percent increase, under the 2003 budget request unveiled last Monday by the White House.

Charles Abell, assistant secretary of defense for force management policy, said in phone interview that the targeted military raise for 2003, on top of the 2002 increase that kicked in last month, would close about half of the selective "pay gap" identified by a Pentagon 2000 study. That analysis, which hasn't been released, compared military pay to that of private sector workers of equal age and education level. Military pay fell short for career enlisted and midgrade officers.

A couple more years of targeted raises might be needed, Abell said, but he cautioned that it's only his best guess. Pentagon pay experts are reviewing wage growth data now to determine the size of the remaining gap should Congress approve the Bush pay raise plan for next January.

Here is the range of targeted raises sought:

  • Enlisted men and women. E-5 with six to 10 years of service, 6 to 6.5 percent; E-6 with eight to 14 years, 5.5 to 6.5 percent; E-7 with 14 to 18 years, 5.5 to 6.5 percent; E-8 with 18 to 22 years, 6 to 6.5 percent; E-9 with 20 to 26 years, 6 to 6.5 percent.
  • Warrant officers. W-1 with six to 12 years, 5.5 to 6 percent; W-2 with 10 to 14 years, 5.5 percent; W-3 with 14 to 20 years, 6 percent.
  • Commissioned officers. O-3 with four to eight years, 5 percent; O-4 with eight to 12 years, 5.5 percent.

A few "cells" on the pay chart, defined by rank and years in service, would receive 2003 raises even higher than the 6.5 percent. But those would be "technical adjustments'' to the pay chart, Abell said, to smooth out and ensure steady gains in pay as service members gain longevity and rank.

TRICARE, cards

Defense Department officials will give elderly beneficiaries with expired military identification cards the benefit of the doubt by paying more than 160,000 TRICARE-for-Life claims rejected because of invalid ID.

Concerned that a data-match problem could shake confidence in TRICARE among beneficiaries or healthcare providers, TRICARE will clear a backlog of multiple claims from more than 65,000 elderly people by paying them. Moreover, it will continue to pay such claims during a six-month "grace period" that will run through July 31.

Meanwhile, TRICARE vows to run an aggressive information campaign to educate Medicare-eligible beneficiaries on obtaining new ID cards.

The beneficiary-friendly solution to the expired-ID problem could raise costs. An unknown number of elderly people with expired cards — widows of retirees who have remarried, for example — might, in fact, be ineligible for benefits.

But the Defense Department might also bear responsibility for many of the ineligible claims entering the TRICARE claims processing system. The master list of TRICARE "eligibles" supplied to Medicare last year included names of every person in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System who had Medicare Part B. The list was not screened to drop those with expired military IDs. So it is possible, perhaps even likely, that widows who knew they were ineligible still had their Medicare claims diverted to TRICARE, after Medicare paid its share, only to learn TRICARE rejected the claims for lack of valid IDs.

"We will reprocess those claims that have been denied, and we don't need any more information from the beneficiary," said Thomas Carrato, executive director of the TRICARE Management Activity in Falls Church, Va.

During the six-month grace period, Carrato said, TRICARE might establish a dedicated phone center to advise seniors on these claims and how to gain new military IDs, if eligible. For now, they can visit their nearest military base or call (888) DoD-LIFE ([888] 363-5433).

What happens if TRICARE pays a lot of claims in error?

That isn't clear.

There is a process for the government to recoup erroneous payments. But waivers also are possible in circumstances where repayment would cause financial hardship.

Vets' lawsuit

The federal government has until Feb. 20 to respond to a lawsuit filed by career military retirees who seek to overturn a century-old law that requires their retired pay to be offset, dollar-for-dollar, by VA compensation for service-connected disabilities. Readers can visit the plaintiffs' Web site at: unitedvets.tripod.com.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will rehear arguments March 6 in a lawsuit brought by Medicare-eligible military retirees who claim the government breached its promise of providing free healthcare for life. The lawsuit seeks up to $10,000 in damages for individual beneficiaries.

The retirees' attorney, retired Air Force Col. George "Bud" Day, organized retirees into Class Act Group which, to date, has received donations and expressions of support from more than 30,000 veterans of World War II and Korea.

Information from Class Act is available at 800-972-6275 or its Web site.

Questions, comments and suggestions are welcome. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, or send e-mail to: milupdate@aol.com.