Tuition aid cut; recruiting, timely Tricare pay at risk

Contributing WriterMarch 16, 2013 

Here are some fresh developments that feuding politicians have created for the U.S. military in wartime:

 • Four service branches, excluding only the Navy, have suspended tuition assistance through at least September this year, a move that will interrupt continuing education plans for tens of thousands of service members and force others to use GI Bill benefits earlier than planned.

 • All of the services expect recruiting to get a lot more difficult as recruiter travel is restricted, recruiting commands are forced to cut marketing and advertising, and recruit processing centers are forced to close Saturdays, starting next month, because civilians on staff will be furloughed. From 10,000 to 14,000 fewer recruits will be signed as a result, officials said.

 • Tricare, the military’s health insurance program, is affectd by a $3.2 billion cut to the defense health program. Unless Congress allows reallocation of medical dollars from research and hospital equipment accounts, Tricare by late August will be forced to delay payments to private sector doctors caring for military family members and retirees.

“I sit here in amazement to think about the problems that you have,” Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., told military leaders. But Jones wasn’t angry with his congressional leaders or even President Barack Obama. He was angry with Harmid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, for his recent outrageous claim that the U.S. military colluded with the Taliban in attacks on Afghan authorities.

“We’re spending roughly $6-to-$8 billion month in Afghanistan. It is a failed policy. We, in Congress, certainly will be debating sequestration and where we are going to make the cuts. ... And yet I doubt if Mr. Karzai is worried a bit about his budget.”

Rep. Susan Davis of California, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, noted that the armed services committee had held several hearings on the effect of sequestration before $46 billion in automatic cuts took effect this month. But none of those hearings, she said, had focused on solutions.

“Unfortunately, the only people who have the ability to resolve this is Congress. We must find common ground and be willing to compromise for the long-term stability of our nation,” Davis said.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., stuck to a more familiar partisan pitch.

“The reason why we’re in this situation fiscally is because for the last several years we have not been able to figure out what the priorities of the budget should be,” Scott said. He noted that a now cash-strapped Army and Marine Corps had to remove a total of more than $200 million from their tuition assistance accounts in recent days to tackle other budget priorities.

Here are other highlights of the hour-long hearing, attended by fewer than half of the subcommittee’s 14 members:

 • Rep. Davis noted that military personnel accounts are protected in fiscal 2013 but will not be in the remaining nine years of sequestration if Congress fails to defuse these cuts by approving a debt-reduction deal worth at least $1.2 trillion in combined spending cuts or tax hikes.

 • Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, warned that this year’s protection of military personnel and pay accounts comes at a cost. Deeper cuts to operations and maintenance, she said, mean “our military personnel will receive reduced training, leading to diminishing readiness and, ultimately, diminishing morale.”

 • Key family support programs will be fully funded, Wright said, but others will have to be pinched “and that will affect quality of life.”

 • The Defense Health Program’s “commitment to quality care is sacrosanct,” said Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Tight budgets won’t affect that. “The department will also ensure that care provided to our wounded warriors is maintained,” he said.

 • Access to military hospitals and clinics for family members and retirees will be preserved “to the greatest extent possible,” Woodson said. But sustaining current levels of care will force deeper cuts to medical research, equipment modernization and facility maintenance, and possibly “significant negative long-term effects on the military health system.”

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