Pace Highlights Troops' Needs to Senate Committee
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 7, 2006 The nation's highest-ranking military officer addressed medical care, reserve component changes and recruiting and retention issues during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee here today.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace asked Congress to "renorm" the cost of the health care benefit, which has been unchanged since 1995, to put that cost in line with 2006-2007 dollars. Pace reminded the senators that an all-volunteer force is conducting the war on terror. "Sustaining our all-volunteer force will be critical in the years ahead," Pace said. "One of the key elements of sustaining that force will be to sustain the health care system."
He said the military health care system is superb, but costly. Since 2001, military health care has risen from $19 billion to $37 billion. "On its current trend, within the time frame between now and 2015, it will be about $64 billion per year," he said.
A number of factors have caused the increase, he said. First, overall health care costs have increased. Second, private employers "are telling their retired military employees to use the military health care system, allowing those private employers to not have to pay the premiums that they would otherwise have to pay for that insurance." He said some state and local government employers are doing the same.
"Another factor (in the rise) is the fact that since 1995, the premiums have not changed for our military forces," he said.
Finally, he said the cost borne by servicemembers has not risen since 1995. "As part of our deliberations this year at every level in the department, to include multiple times in discussions with the Joint Chiefs, the Joint Chiefs have unanimously recommended that we 'renorm' the cost of health care to what you ... established in your 1995 legislation," he said.
But the chairman added that the renorming should not affect active-duty troops and their families and retirees over 65, and that the catastrophic cap should not change from its current $3,000 for a family.
"We believe that this health care benefit is unique and superb. We want it to continue for all of our members of the active/retired community, and we believe that renorming to what you established in 1995 is one way to assist in helping us achieve the goal of long-term sustained health care," he said.
The size, equipping and use of the National Guard and reserves figured in many questions posed to Pace, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker at today's hearing.
Pace said that since the beginning of the war on terror, about half of the 800,000 reserve component servicemembers have been mobilized. "When we first went into combat, we had about 40 percent of the total force was Guard and Reserve," he said. "It is 30 percent now, and the force that is deploying over the next year, from March of this year to March of next year, will be about 19 percent Guard and Reserve. So the size of the force is coming down, and the need for contribution from the Guard and Reserve is coming down."
For reserve component servicemembers who have not been mobilized, DoD is looking out two or three years. "In the possibility that we may need to continue to sustain today's level of forces, we are identifying those individuals whose training and skill set needs to be changed so that they can do a military police function, for example, instead of artillery," he said. Rebalancing the force - both within the reserves and between active and reserve forces - remains a priority for the future, he said.
Pace also spoke about retention and recruiting. He said the troops "feel good" about what they have done to date. "They know that what they are doing is important, because they've been doing it. They're on the ground. They see for themselves," the chairman said.
He told the senators the troops notice their support, and that it sends a "very loud message" that America supports them. "And it's true not only for the troops who are serving currently in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. He told the committee of going to Korea last week and, among other things, re-enlisting 29 soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division. "We did it in a platoon formation," he said. "It was fabulous: first-term re-enlistment, second and third. The fact that they value their own service to their country, and equally important, that the country tells them how important their service is, is a huge plus in their decisions to stay."
He told the committee that a very important factor for retention is family support. "(Military families) are serving this country," he said. "And when a servicemember comes home and their family tells that servicemember they're proud of them for what they're doing, they support what they're doing, they're willing to continue to support them in the future, that makes all the difference in the world."