With military efforts continuing and accidental service member deaths alarming, House-Senate conferees negotiating a final 2018 defense authorization bill that rejected most Senate-passed provisions to slow compensation growth, including a modest cap on the January pay raise and housing cuts for most members married to other service members.
Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said all conferees had "the welfare of service members foremost in our minds. Some of that is pay and benefits but also, [considering] recent naval accidents and air accidents, it's making sure they have equipment that works."
Conferees, therefore, opted to accept the House plan for a 2.4 percent military pay raise, matching recent private sector pay growth, rather than 2.1 percent backed by senators, which would have saved $1.5 billion through 2022.
They also rejected senators' call to cut housing allowances for dual service couples with children. Under the Senate plan, one member no longer would have been eligible for Basic Allowance for Housing at the higher "with dependents" rate.
"We have had these discussions before with the Senate," Thornberry said late Wednesday. "Their concern is that a housing allowance designed to pay housing cost is no longer seen that way," but includes "extra pay."
"And that's right," he said. "The question is: How do you back out of that?"
Conferees did accept the Senate's embrace of a plan to raise pharmacy fees and encourage greater use of generic drugs, on-base pharmacies and mail order. In the year ahead, co-pays for a 30-day supply of brand drugs at retail, or a 90-day supply by mail order, will be raised to $28 and to $45 by 2026.
To encourage greater use of base pharmacies, where drugs will remain free, the plan will add a $10 co-pay for mail-order generic drugs, rising to $14 by 2026.
Thornberry said House conferees were reluctant to accept the co-pay increases but understood the Senate argument that, by the accepting the pharmacy fee plan, it would free up "mandatory" budget dollars, vs. "discretionary" defense spending, to fix another issue for surviving military spouses.
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