Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of requirements and analysis at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network and a research analyst for Blue Star Families.
Written by Shelley Kimball
It’s no secret that I like hearing from you and about you. But it’s not just because I have a big place in my heart for Coasties. It’s because it matters, and it makes a difference.
I’m not fooled – I can tell you are probably shaking your head, or disregarding what I just said. I know I am right, and I have proof. So hear me out.
I’m going to start by telling you that in my life outside From the Homefront, I am a researcher. For more than three years, I have had the privilege of talking to military family members all the time about their lives and what would help them.
Recently, I was the primary investigator for some research from the Military Family Advisory Network that evaluated whether military families are getting the support they need. That means I culled through thousands of responses from people to find out how they are faring.
I’m telling you that because for any of you who participated, I read all of your responses. And then we sent them on to the people who can make your lives easier – one of those groups was the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
The Military Family Advisory Network had several chances to speak with commissioners about the work we do, and we presented our research results to them. Not one meeting went by where we did not talk about Coast Guard families. I drew on my experiences, the stories you tell me here at From the Homefront, and yes, my research, to tell them about Coast Guard life.
My job is always to tell the Coast Guard story, and to make sure we are represented. And we were represented in the MCRMC report.
Let me set the stage by explaining that MCRMC was a commission developed to evaluate the existing compensation and retirement systems to find ways to make it all fiscally sustainable while still protecting the interests of servicemembers and their families. It released its report publicly last week. Commissioners visited military bases, military service organizations, military communities, and it conducted its own survey of servicemembers. For example, the commissioners traveled to isolated stations, like Air Station Kodiak, to speak with servicemembers and their families.
In its results, the commission made it clear that when it talks about services, it means all services, including the Coast Guard. It also recommends that the secretary of defense consult with the Department of Homeland Security regarding changes that would affect members of the Coast Guard.
I’ve boiled down the main recommendations from MCRMC. There are more explanations and details in the report, but this will get you started in seeing how it all could affect you.
Pay and retirement:
The commission recommends a revised retirement plan, but those currently serving would be grandfathered into it. Some of the revisions include expanding the Thrift Savings Plan and providing the option of a lump sump of retirement benefits. Servicemembers will be automatically enrolled in the TSP and contributions will be matched. Servicemembers will have the opportunity to un-enroll in TSP but they will be re-enrolled at different career milestones in an effort to encourage participation.
Servicemembers do not have to wait until they are 60 to claim their retirement benefits. Upon retirement (after 20 years) servicemembers will have the option to withdraw a lump sum of their retirement. If a servicemember opts for a lump sum withdrawal, the payout of the remainder will begin at 60. This gives servicemembers the flexibility to access more of their retirement money early, depending on their personal needs at the time.
The commission also recommends continued financial literacy training throughout the servicemember’s career, not just at the beginning during bootcamp.
The commission recommends that a joint readiness command—unified over all services—be created. The commission also proposed the creation of a health insurance that offers more choices and options for servicemembers and retirees called Tricare Choice. The commission recommends that servicemembers have a basic healthcare allowance added to their pay that will cover the cost of Tricare Choice. The healthcare allowance will be built into pay and is not lost if it isn’t used. If servicemembers do not use it for the insurance plan, they keep the money as pay.
Military Treatment Facilities, or MTFs, would focus more on the treatment needs of active duty members. Families could use the new plan to seek healthcare from outside of the MTFs. Here’s what this means: When looking at medical care, you want a doctor that has done your procedure regularly. MTFs are restricted to military and retirees, so they have a restricted caseload. MTF doctors may specialize in particular care for servicemembers, and may not have the same experiences as the hospital down the street. So, this gives families the option to choose the best medical provider for their needs. Retirees would get a lifetime guarantee that the military would pay 80% of healthcare costs, which would be phased in over 15 years.
Quality of life:
Post 9/11 GI Bill Transferability:
The commission recognizes the value of transferring the post-9/11 GI Bill to dependents, and it wants to preserve it. However, it also acknowledges that it may not be fiscally sustainable as it exists now. In its research, the commission found that the cost of providing the Basic Housing Allowance to dependents was almost twice that of room and board for college students in most areas. Therefore, it recommends removing the BAH segment of the benefit for dependents. This would end in mid-July 2017, which would give those students currently in school the chance to complete their degree programs with the benefit. Those dependents who are beginning college now would get the benefit for part of their degree plans.
There has been a lot of talk about cutting commissary budgets, but the commission recognizes this is a valued benefit in the military community. Therefore, the Commission recommends merging commissaries and exchanges under one umbrella. The new plan would continue to provide funding to protect the cost-savings for food and personal health products. The combined commissary-exchange could carry additional products as conveniences to families. While those products may not have the same cost-savings as food and personal health items, the profits from those products would still be used to supplement MWR programming.
The commission recognizes that childcare can be challenging for military families, and it sees childcare as a force readiness issue. There is a lack of data on the number of families who want and need childcare at Child Development Centers. Therefore, the commission recommends that a better tracking system be implemented, granting a better understanding of the length of waitlists and wait times for childcare at military installations. Additionally, according to the commission’s research, the job description for childcare professionals at CDCs is outdated. The commission recommends that a more accurate job description be implemented in an effort to avoid too much staff turnover. The commission also recommends that childcare providers be exempt from furloughs or hiring freezes to ensure job security.
Food subsistence assistance:
The Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance (FSSA) is a program intended to help military families whose incomes are low enough to be eligible for food stamps. In its research, MCRMC found that the program is not serving military families properly. One of the obstacles is it requires families to go through the chain of command to access the benefits, which may deter active duty members who need help.
More families are qualifying for and using SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, available to military and civilian families. Therefore, the commission recommends discontinuing the FSSA program for families in the continental United States because they can use SNAP. Those families outside the continental United States, or OCONUS, do not have a similar alternative, and therefore, the FSSA program would remain in place for them.
When a servicemember is deployed the spouse will be able to access Space-A travel after 30 days of deployment (the current rule is 120 days).
The commission recommends that the Department of Labor work more closely with the Veteran’s Administration to provide effective services to active duty members transitioning out of the military.
Military child Education:
Families would have the option of implementing a military student identifier for their children (they could also opt out of using it.) Tracking identified military students would allow school liaison officers to better serve the students at their schools, but it could also provide more long-term data on how military children fare in schools across the country.
This is not a done deal. If something here doesn’t sit right with you, then speak up. MCRMC presented its findings this week to both the House and Senate Armed Services committees. Next members of Congress have to accept them. So call your representatives and tell them what you think.
And next time a survey comes across your screen, know that it is so much more than adding your thoughts. It is a powerful way to be heard.
And you see that comment block down at the bottom of the page? That’s your space. Fill it up! Tell us what you think – what kind of support programs do you like? What do you need? We’re listening.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.