A group of 32 military and veterans organizations is pressing House and Senate members to pass legislation they've spent years lobbying for -- eliminating what is colloquially called the "widow's tax."
The Military Coalition, as it's called, also backs measures under consideration in Congress that would slow Defense Department efforts to cut nearly 18,000 uniformed medical billets and combine the commissary and exchange systems.
In a letter sent Sept. 12 to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, members of the coalition, which represents more than 5.5 million service members, veterans and family members, praised passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019. The bill raised defense spending caps and extended the debt ceiling through July 2021, thereby averting drastic budget cuts to the Department of Defense.
The letter comes as members of the House and Senate meet this month to hammer out differences in their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Among the coalition's top concerns is preserving the projected pay raise of 3.1% for service members, and eliminating the offset paid by survivors of military personnel who purchased the Survivor Benefit Plan, or SBP, and also receive disability payments from the VA -- the "Widow's Tax."
SBP provides automatic coverage to active-duty members and reservists who die of a service-connective cause while inactive. Military retirees can buy into the program following retirement to ensure that a portion of their pay continues to go to their spouses or designated beneficiaries when they die.
But if the service member or retiree dies from a service-connected condition, survivors also receive compensation from the VA. In those cases, the survivor foregoes, dollar for dollar, his or her SBP payments.
The issue affects roughly 65,000 military family members, with an average loss of $11,000 per year.
More than 370 House members and 75 Senators are in favor of eliminating the offset. Some lawmakers continue to oppose elimination, however, objecting to the cost.
"Never have we seen such support for eliminating the offset. Congress should end this injustice," Military Coalition members wrote.
The group also urged caution on a plan by the military services to reduce the number of uniformed personnel in medical billets, part of an overall effort to focus military medical support on operations while allowing the Defense Health Agency to manage care for garrison troops, retirees and their family members.
While an exact number or plan has not been published, roughly 17,000 to 18,000 billets will either be cut or eliminated as a result of attrition.
Coalition members want Congress to require DoD to analyze the impact of personnel reduction and provide a report on the plan to ensure it "has assessed and mitigated all potential negative impacts to readiness and beneficiary care" before it alters the system.
The group also wants Congress to provide close oversight of a Pentagon effort to merge its commissary and exchange stores -- a move DoD says will save between $700 million and $1.3 billion in the first five years and $400 million to $700 million each following year.
"TMC encourages Congress to wait for the results of the ongoing GAO review before taking any action on consolidation," they wrote.
Members praised new proposals in the bills that provide protections from military families living in privatized housing on and near installations, but they also requested that they consider extending those protections to other occupants, including contractors, veterans and military retirees.
Since passage of the fiscal 1996 National Defense Authorization Act, some civilians have been able to rent military base housing managed by private companies, depending on company policy and availability.
The coalition asked to see a tenant bill of rights, access to a compliance database, and resolution of disputes with the management companies that run base housing provided to all tenants, including those who live in the barracks.
Members of The Military Coalition include the Military Officers Association of America, Wounded Warrior Project, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, National Military Family Association and 28 other organizations.
The House and Senate defense policy bills contain some major differences on social issues, war authorizations and operations at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.