Tagged: budget cuts

In Heartwarming Display of Austerity and Restraint, Army Adds Another 4-Star Billet

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

In this new era of threatening furloughs for schoolteachers and slashing funding for the training of brigade combat teams, the Army has made a heartwarming gesture of solidarity with troops making do with less by creating an additional four-star billet – with the attendant headquarters and staff.

Lieutenant General Michael Brooks – a 1980 West Point graduate – has been tapped to take command of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific. He will receive a promotion to the four-star rank – the equivalent of a combatant command billet such as SOUTHCOM, CENTCOM and EUROCOM.

General Brooks will command about 65,000 troops – roughly the equivalent of a corps – which normally justifies three stars. U.S. Army Pacific currently includes the 25th Division in Hawaii and Alaska, U.S. Army Korea, U.S. Army Japan, and the 9th Regional Support Command.

Even more curiously, General Brooks will assume his post this summer at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, just a short distance away from Camp Smith, the home of USPACOM, or US Pacific Command, a unified combatant command currently headed by a full four-star Admiral, Samuel J. Locklear.

General Brooks would be senior to the deputy commander of the unified combatant that oversees his own troops, Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Conant. 

Troop General ratio

The chart shows the steadily increasing ratio of general and flag officers per 10,000 troops since WWII. Source.

GOP Senator Places DoD Schools, Commissary Benefits Under Budget Scrutiny

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

describe the imageSenator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is a fiscal conservative known for his advocacy against needless federal spending and government waste. Recently, however, Senator Coburn turned his sights on the military commissary benefit.

The commissary system receives direct federal subsidies and enables military families to save up to 30 percent on groceries, according to the Military Family Association, which vociferously opposes cutting the program.

The Report

Senator Coburn’s office issued a report on Department of Defense spending with the tongue-in-cheek title The Department of Everything. In the report, Coburn chastises the Administration for using defense funds to do everything from brew beer to study dinosaurs. Most of these programs he mentions are obvious and profligate wastes. But he also criticizes the department for running the DoD school system and the cherished commissary system, which until recently were not particularly controversial.

Education

But Coburns’ office argues that domestic DoD education programs are duplicative:

The Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS) that educates children of military families here in the United States and the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs that duplicate the work of the Department of Education and local school districts ($10.7 billion). The Department of Defense Tuition Assistance Program which provides college funding for military members on active duty and duplicates the Department of Veterans Affairs ($4.5 billion).

Further, Coburn argues that the domestic DoD school system is extraordinarily expensive and wasteful: The Department of Defense operates 64 domestic schools on 16 different military installations serving 19,000 students, at a cost of $50,000 per student.

In contrast, the average per pupil education expenditure for public schools nationwide was $10,694 in 2008-2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Furthermore, Coburn finds that DoD schools are top-heavy with public employee salaries: The staff to student ratio for public schools nationwide is 15-1, Coburn asserts; the staff-to-student ratio in the domestic DoD school system is 9.5 to 1.

These schools cost the taxpayer nearly half a billion dollars in 2010, according to the Senator’s report.

Commissaries

Coburn argues that the taxpayer could also save $9 billion per year by eliminating subsidies to military commissaries – which would force military families to go off post to do their grocery shopping. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that military families would pay about 7 percent more in groceries per year – or about $400 per year, per Coburn’s office. (His report is missing the footnote, however.) Coburn advocates taking the savings from the commissary subsidy and increasing pay or the basic allowance for housing benefit. However, if Congress transfers this money to BAH, reserve component members would generally lose their commissary benefit without any compensating benefit in pay, since reservists and Guardsmen do not receive BAH.

Coburn’s report echoes an earlier recommendation by the Congressional Budget office that the Department of Defense eliminate the commissary subsidy in favor of a grocery allowance.

Meanwhile, Coburn’s calculation that the average military family receives only a $400 benefit from the commissary program – and the CBO’s recommendation – has been hotly contested by the Military Resale and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center for Research. It calculates that a military family of four that regularly uses the commissary would save closer to $4,500 per year – and that Coburn understates the benefit to servicemembers by a factor of 10. It also concludes that the benefit for a couple equals about $2,800, and about $1,500 for single servicemembers (because all of you cook at home regularly, of course).

At any rate, don’t look for your local commissary to be padlocking its doors anytime soon. None of the proposals being put forth would totally eliminate the system, according to CouponsInTheNews.com. Some options include leasing store space to private sector grocers, or reducing the subsidy without eliminating it entirely.

TRICARE Prime Users Take Another Hit

Posted by S.E. Davidson Parker

TRICARE Prime gets cutIn another cost-cutting effort, those who are on TRICARE Prime will see another big change on April 1st, 2013, starting in parts of the Western Region. Retirees and their dependents who live more than 40 miles from a military medical treatment facility will be forced off TRICARE Prime and moved to TRICARE Standard. It’s estimated that approximately 30,000 veterans and their families will be affected in Iowa; Minnesota; Oregon; Reno, Nevada; and Springfield, MO. (Patients within 100 miles of a primary care provider may stay on it providing they sign an access waiver and there is network capability.)

Three problems are at the heart of the manner: an increase of out-of-pocket cost for our veterans; the distance that many veterans will have to drive in predominately rural areas to access medical services; and the lack and timing of public announcements made to inform beneficiaries of the changes.

TRICARE Prime is based on a health maintenance organization (HMO) model. Beneficiaries pay an enrollment fee but have a set (low) cost out-of-pocket per medical service (doctor visit, prescription, x-rays, etc.). TRICARE Standard is an indemnity, or straight fee-for-services, program. While there is no enrollment fee, beneficiaries pay a percentage of their doctor’s charges. (TRICARE Prime Remote is not available to retirees.) The concern comes from retirees living on a fixed income who will end paying a higher percentage (and higher dollar amount) of their overall income for their medical needs on Standard than they would on Prime.

Retiree living in largely rural states with few active-duty military bases will take the brunt of the change. Those beneficiaries who cannot find doctors who take Standard or pay the higher fees associated with this change or may find themselves driving longer distances to find health care. This could mean several hours in many instances; not appealing in a wellness check scenario, and definitely not when one is ill.

Communication from the Pentagon regarding this issue has been rather sparse. Although plans for revamping TRICARE Prime have been in the works since 2007, no formal announcements have been made. Neither will the Pentagon confirm the number of retirees affected, answer letters from Congressional members asking the Department of Defense to detail the new plans as well as projected outcomes, or respond to inquiries from the press regarding this matter.

The five areas of the Western region will not be alone for long. TRICARE’s Northern and Southern Regions (and is guessed, the rest of the Western region) will switch its Prime members to Standard as of October 1st, 2013. This brings the grand total to 171,000 beneficiaries affected in the United States.

Greg Walden (D-OR), Mark Amondei (R-NV), and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) have sponsored H.R. 6635, also known as the TRICARE Protection Act. This bipartisan bill seeks to allow affected beneficiaries to switch to TRICARE Prime Remote for two years giving them access to the same benefits and additional time to prepare for the switch to Standard, to have the military spearhead the efforts to help find retirees new doctors, and to study and report the economic and service affects on the beneficiaries. It went to the House Armed Service Committee December 5th, 2012. Unfortunately, it is not expected to pass. In this time of “going off the fiscal cliff,” finding additional savings to offset the bill for a program that seemingly has already been “fixed” does not hold much sway in Washington.

Department of Everything

Posted by Kelli McKinney

department of everythingA more narrow focus within the Department of Defense might free up nearly $68 billion over 10 years – money which would be better spent in more direct support of the military, says Senator Tom Coburn.

His recently released report, titled “Department of Everything” names what he calls duplicative and wasteful programs that he argues have little to do with our nation’s security. However, he also puts two DoD activities on the chopping block that some service members and retirees may take issue with: commissaries and elementary schools. Sen. Coburn says those two programs alone would eat up more than $24 billion in the next decade.

In his report, Sen. Coburn claims some of the more duplicitous among the DoD’s expenditures are:

  • Alternative Energy – $700 million
  • Non-Military Research and Development – $6 billion
  • Commissaries – $9 billion
  • Overhead, Support and Supply Services – $37 billion
  • Stateside DoD Elementary Schools and STEM programs – $15.2 billion

He also calls out some of the more unusual DoD projects funded by taxpayer dollars:

  • 100-year Starship Project  – $1 million
  • “Did Jesus Die for Klingons Too?” workshop – $100,000
  • Pentagon-branded beef jerky
  • Grill it Safe, a reality cooking show featuring two “Grill Sergeants”
  • Pentagon-operated microbreweries
  • Research on social interactions between robots and babies
  • Development of a smartphone app to alert users when to take a coffee break

So if all $67.8 billion was restored to the DoD’s military spending, what would that pay for? According to Sen. Coburn that funding could cover:

  • 1/3 of the cost of the USAF’s planned fleet of new strategic bombers
  • 1/3 of the cost of replacing the Navy’s fleet of Ohio-class nuclear submarines
  • Modernization or purchase of new rifles and light machine guns for every soldier in the Army.

What do you think of the Senator’s report? Would you cut everything he suggests? Is it fair to call commissaries and elementary schools duplicitous? Do you think the DoD is like a Department of Everything? Let us know in the comments.

DoD Putting Off Announcement of TRICARE Cuts until After the Election

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

TRICARE Prime cutsMilitary Times is reporting that an unnamed source has said that the Department of Defense is deliberately delaying announcing broad cuts in TRICARE Prime benefits for some military members, retirees and their families until after “a certain date in November.”

The Presidential elections, with a lot of down-ticket races at stake as well, are scheduled for Tuesday, November 6th.

The planned changes would eliminate access to TRICARE Prime in five areas in the West and Midwest, including Iowa; Minnesota; Oregon; Reno, Nevada and Springfield, Missouri, effective April 1 of next year. As we reported last week, these changes have been contemplated by members of both parties since at least 2007, as a way to contain military health care costs. TRICARE Prime enrollees will have to enroll in TRICARE Standard, which provides less in the way of benefits.

The changes will affect perhaps as many as 170,000 participants, who would have to switch to Prime or drive farther to see a doctor.

The Administration is locked in a fierce battle to win the 2012 presidential contest – and health care and the economy are major issues.

At least one Congressman, Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) wants to know why the Pentagon is delaying the formal announcement.

The delay comes on the heels of another parallel controversy: The Obama Administration pressured the defense industry to delay issuing layoff notices legally required under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notice Act (the “WARN Act”),  until after the election – a move that Senator Lindsey Graham argues is “patently illegal.”

Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) has also written to TRICARE’s chief doctor, asking for clarification – and pushing for a formal announcement of any cuts prior to the election.

At issue: A contract change between two providers. While the Pentagon is not confirming anything at this time, the incoming contractor for the TRICARE West region, United Healthcare, does not plan on providing TRICARE Prime services beyond 40 miles from major treatment facilities. This could cause around 30,000 plan participants to lose their access to the Prime plan, requiring them to pay more out of pocket.

Pentagon Gutting TRICARE Prime for 30,000 People

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

TRICARE cutsAccording to reporting by Military Times, some 20,000 TRICARE Prime beneficiaries will lose access to their plan, as of April 1, according to Pentagon sources familiar with the matter.

From the article:

The Pentagon is moving ahead with plans to slash its network of Tricare Prime providers, starting by eliminating the Prime option in three states and two cities in the Tricare West region.

As of April 1, as many as 30,000 Prime beneficiaries — retirees, Active Guard and Reserve troops, and family members — in Iowa; Minnesota; Oregon; Reno, Nev.; and Springfield, Mo., will have to switch to Tricare Standard, a traditional fee-for-service health plan, according to a source with knowledge of the reorganization.

Pentagon officials would not confirm that the five areas will lose Prime in April.

The areas lie outside Prime service areas covered under new Tricare regional contracts awarded by the Pentagon.

More details on precisely who is affected and how are available at the link.

The cuts aren’t exactly a surprise: They were first proposed in 2007, as a way to preserve scarce medical resources for active duty families when the military medical system was getting overstressed by deployments.

The cuts aren’t purely a Democratic initiative, either: While the Democrats held both the House and Senate in 2007, it is Republicans who hold the House now. And while Democrat Barack Obama is the Commander in Chief, GOP Senator John McCain, the former presidential candidate from Arizona, also went on record last year advocating similar cuts as a way to preserve training and operations budgets from the ravages of sequestration.

Budget Cuts Hit Veterans at the End

Posted by S.E. Davidson Parker

Bugler playing TapsYour dad served his country and served it well. In his twilight years, he told you he wanted, nee expected, full military honors. The Great Roll Call came, and your father passed on. Upon calling, the funeral director was told that two soldiers with a flag and a tape recorder would plan show up at the funeral. Not what you expected? Neither did Roger Smith.

Robert James Smith was a Pearl Harbor veteran who passed away in Oregon on August 19th, 2012. His son, Roger, discovered firsthand what years of budget cuts have done to military Honor Guards assigned to funerals. Postponing his father’s funeral for close to two weeks to try and arrange full military honors, which he believed included a live bugler and 21-gun salute, he eventually gave up and hired a bugler himself. Two Honor Guards did show up to fold and present the flag; for one of the guards, it was her second funeral of the day.

Budget cuts have decimated Honor Guards across the country. According to the Department of Defense’s Military Funeral Honors website, “By law, military units are required to provide, at a minimum, a two-person uniformed detail to present the core elements of the Funeral Honors ceremony.” Upon further investigation, the Frequently Asked Questions page states that “The honor detail will, at a minimum, perform a ceremony that includes the folding and presentation of the American Flag to the next of kin and the playing of Taps. Taps will be played by a bugler, if available, or by electronic recording (tape, CD or Ceremonial Bugle).” And that’s about all many veterans will receive.

Electronic recording of Taps at military funerals were authorized in 2003. Honor Guards were being stretched to their limits with the combat deaths of service members in the Middle East and the natural aging of the veteran community. Add to that the limited number of service members that play the bugle at a professional level, and the already limited resources hit the breaking point. A recording plays while a soldier pretends to play the bugle. While initially few and far between, electronic recordings are becoming more and more commonplace.

Bottom line; if you are expecting the gun salute, a color guard, a live bugler, caissons, or pallbearers, prepare to be disappointed.