Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Military brass need to pay more for their health care, retired Adm. Mike Mullen says

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Joel Gehrke,Defense Spending,Military Budget,Budgets and Deficits,Pensions,Mike Mullen

Retired military brass need to pay more for their health care, according to retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who articulated a position that contrasts with the protection lawmakers gave flag officers when they reduced cost-of-living adjustments for lower-ranking service members in the latest budget agreement.

Mullen has said for years that the national debt poses the greatest risk to the United States. "I'm someone that believes everybody is going to have to sacrifice," he noted Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by Concerned Veterans for America and the Weekly Standard. "Very specifically, from a retirement standpoint -- this goes to a hot issue, as well, the whole COLA issue right now -- I'm happy to be means-tested for my health care payments [or] co-pays, I'm happy to be means-tested for other 'entitlements,' if you will, and I don't want to hurt the staff sergeant, the 20-year staff sergeant who is just bumping along. Don't touch individuals like that. But those who can afford a little more need to pay a little more."

COLAs, or cost-of-living adjustments, for retired service members took a hit when Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., agreed to reduce the COLA by one percentage point for military retirees younger than 62 as part of the budget deal that passed in January.

The most senior officers, though, were exempted from the cut. "The deal does not affect the 2007 enhancement for top pension, which has allowed pension rates for those officers to spike," USA Today explained at the time.

Pensions for flag officers were raised in 2003 in order to give the most experienced officers a reason to stay in the military at a time when their services were especially needed, in light of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"Figures for 2011 show that a four-star officer retiring with 38 years' experience received a yearly pension of about $219,600, a jump of $84,000, or 63 percent beyond what was previously allowed. A three-star officer with 35 years' experience would get about $169,200 a year, up about $39,000, or 30 percent," per USA Today.

Mullen said he was "very conflicted" about the Ryan-Murray deal, saying he didn't want it to affect soldiers who had undertaken their service with the understanding that their pensions would be higher.

"We wanted to grandfather to anybody that had come in that had basically an implied or actual contract for a career, so, starting at the five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-year level, those that had clearly indicated they may stay for 20," he told the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol. "We should grandfather any kind of change like that. That said, if you do that, that doesn't produce any money for '15, '16, that doesn't get at the issue of money [for 2015 or 2016], it doesn't get at the issue for a significant amount of time in terms of the pension, the retirement pension for the military.

"I really believe we do need to means-test it and that everybody is going to have to pitch in."

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