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Cohen, Shelton Address Top Personnel Aspects of DoD Budget

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2000 – Fixing TRICARE, moderating the tempo of operations and housing are top DoD quality of life priorities for the fiscal 2001 Defense budget request, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Henry Shelton said April 26.

Cohen and Shelton testified before the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Cohen thanked the committee for funding the fiscal 2000 pay raises and fixing military retirement, but said more must be done. He said housing and health care are the two areas that concern him most in the fiscal 2001 request.

Shelton said fixing TRICARE is not only the "right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do." He said the system, the nation's largest health care provider, "is not user friendly." While military members and their families are generally satisfied with the care they receive once they have entered the TRICARE system, "they are frustrated with the system as a whole," Shelton said.

The senators asked Cohen and Shelton what DoD wants to do to reform the system. They urged DoD to hurry with a proposal to Congress. "The chairman and I are looking at the pharmacy benefit, and that's something that we think we can recommend fairly quickly," Cohen said. "But we're still trying to work out what the price tag is going to be...."

The secretary said DoD is looking at the possibility of using VA medical treatment facilities and the possibility of opening the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan to military retirees. He said DoD is still looking at the options, "but I would say in the next few weeks, we should have some kind of a recommendation coming to you." Cohen said any solution would be "fairly expensive."

Cohen also explained the administration's budget request for military housing. "On housing, we ... included some $3.1 billion in the budget for the five-year period to eliminate the inequity that currently exists [between service members living on base and off base]". The money will eliminate the 19 percent of housing costs service members living off base must pay out of pocket, he said.

"We are trying to deal seriously with the housing situation," Cohen said. "We've got a long way to go in terms of rehabbing and replacing much of the housing that currently exists to make sure we are providing adequate housing for the men and women who are serving us."

Operations and maintenance accounts are in good shape, he said, "but, I will tell you, there's not any margin for us to absorb further cuts in operations and maintenance funding."

Cohen and Shelton both said the U.S. military position around the world is good but that the forces are over- stretched. "I think the force is relatively healthy, although it is stretched," Shelton said. "And I would tell you that unit personnel shortages continue to plague many units in the field." He said the first-to-fight units are combat-ready, but that follow-on units are not manned or equipped as well.

"The current tempo of operations ... is having an effect on [service members] and also on their family members," Shelton said. "We still encounter frequent, often unexpected and persistent, deployments. And that of course produces stress. Ultimately, if we are not careful, too many protracted deployments will inevitably disrupt our operating budgets and cause lost training opportunities. And of course, it always accelerates the wear and the tear on the equipment, which then leads to additional recapitalization requirements.

"But most importantly," Shelton continued, "I think, our high pace of operations impacts quality of life. And it could, if we aren't careful, jeopardize our capability to retain the great quality force that we have worked so hard to build."

Shelton said DoD is increasing the size of some of the low- density, high-demand forces as well as using "all of the tools in our kit bag" to solve the perstempo problem.

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