(A version of this article by Gina Harkins originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
MOAA members can expect a host of changes to their benefits in 2020, along with lots of shifts in how the military is preparing for a new kind of fight.
This year, elections could shake up congressional committees, new TRICARE pharmacy fees and commissary benefits go into effect, and service leaders continue grappling with threats from China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.
That all points to big changes for troops, veterans, retirees, and their families. Here’s a look at what to expect in 2020.
Your 2020 Benefits Forecast
New dental and vision premiums. TRICARE beneficiaries enrolled in the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Benefits Program — or FEDVIP — will likely see a bump in premium costs this year.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced in October the average dental plan premium would jump 5.6%. The average vision plan premium is also expected to see a 1.5% bump.
Last year, Congress waived a health insurance provider fee connected to the Affordable Care Act. This year, the fee wasn’t waived, which is what OPM officials say led to the increases.
Under the new rates, average costs for dental plans are $39 for self, $77 for self plus one, and $113 for self and family. The averages for vision plans are about $11 for self, $22 for self plus one, and $32 for self plus family.
Blue-water Navy claims. After years of fighting for benefits, veterans who served near Vietnam and have serious illnesses believed to be caused by Agent Orange can now file disability claims with the VA.
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 went into effect Jan. 1. Veterans who served on vessels operating within 12 nautical miles of Vietnam and Cambodia who are now suffering from one of 14 illnesses believed to be tied to a dangerous herbicide used between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, could qualify for benefits.
“VA is dedicated to ensuring that all veterans receive the benefits they have earned,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said after President Donald Trump signed the bill into law.
New TRICARE pharmacy rates. TRICARE beneficiaries who don’t get their prescriptions from DoD military treatment facilities could face prescription fees as high as $60 per medication starting Jan. 1.
TRICARE retail and mail-in prescription drug costs will continue rising for the next seven years. This year, users could see as much as 18% cost jumps in medications they get from retail pharmacies and a 42% spike in mail-order options.
Generic drug options for both retail and mail-in prescriptions will see the biggest cost percentage increases since 2019. Expect to pay $13 for 30 days’ worth of a generic drug purchased at a retail pharmacy and $10 for a 60-day mail-in supply.
MOAA continues to urge DoD officials to be transparent about the revenue generated by the cost increases and where funds are being directed.
Commissary benefits expand. Your local commissary could get a bit more crowded in 2020 as about 3 million more people get access to the stores starting Jan. 1.
All service-connected disabled veterans, Purple Heart recipients, caregivers, and former POWs are now allowed to shop at military exchanges and commissaries. Officials have called the change, which was included in the 2019 Defense Authorization Act, the biggest patron expansion in more than six decades.
The Coast Guard Exchange System also recently opened to all civil-service employees with any Department of Homeland Security agency. Capt. Bruce Brown, the Coast Guard Community Services’ commanding officer, called that move a “historic expansion.”
Your 2020 Military Forecast
Military housing concerns. MOAA continues pushing for improvements to military housing after several high-profile problems emerged last year.
The Army continues to struggle with families’ concerns over privatized military housing. Poor conditions prompted an Army inspector general investigation, which found more than two-thirds of families said they’d move off base if they could. Lawmakers have also summoned family members to Capitol Hill to testify about the problems.
MOAA provided a briefing on privatized military housing legislative issues during the 2019 Congressional Military Family Summit in the fall and will continue advocating that lawmakers help address any shortfalls in upcoming legislation.
New promotion rules for Air Force officers. The May Air Force lieutenant colonel promotion board will be the first to use six new officer-development groupings.
Based on feedback from thousands of airmen, the Air Force established six new promotion categories, replacing the longstanding single Line of the Air Force category. The new categories include air operations and special warfare, nuclear and missile operations, space operations, information warfare, combat support, and force modernization.
The move will allow officers to compete for promotion against others in similar career fields. It’s meant to “allow each career field the freedom and agility to better tailor officer development to meet job demands without compromising competitive position at a promotion board,” a release announcing the change states.
The new categories mark the biggest ever change to the officer promotion system.
“This is an important step forward in the way Air Force leaders are developed,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in a statement.
A stronger Pacific presence. As tensions with China heat up, more troops will spend time in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Marine Corps is preparing for more naval operations in the Pacific. And the Army will test its ability to rapidly deploy up to 10,000 soldiers from the U.S. to locations throughout Asia-Pacific region — including areas near the South China Sea, where it’s likely to send a big signal to China.
The Army and Marine Corps are both investing in improved long-range precision fire capabilities in case they’re called on to defend ships or attack enemy vessels from ashore.
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Defender Europe. Also on tap in 2020 is a massive spring exercise that will take place across 10 European countries and involve 37,000 U.S., allied, and partner nations’ militaries.
Exercise Defender Europe will mark the largest deployment of U.S.-based land forces to Europe for a training event in 25 years. More than half of NATO’s member states are scheduled to participate, which is likely to catch Russia’s attention.
Russia, like China, was named a near-peer threat in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
Going unmanned. All the services have invested in unmanned technology over the years, but the Navy and Marine Corps have big plans to leverage medium and large unmanned surface vessels.
The Navy last year sent a 132-foot unmanned ship from California to Hawaii and back again with hardly anyone spending time aboard the vessel. The Marine Corps also recently tested a 40-foot self-driving boat that’s equipped with a Longbow Hellfire Missile Launcher and .50-caliber machine gun on a remote weapon station.
Naval leaders, who want $2.7 billion to build 10 large unmanned surface vessels in coming years, have kept plans for the new ghost fleet under wraps. But they say the ships could be used to move gear and respond to threats in contested environments without putting Marines and sailors at risk.
Functional fitness. Soldiers, sailors, and Marines will see changes to their fitness tests in 2020.
In October, soldiers will be required to take the new gender- and age-neutral Army Combat Fitness Test. Officials say the test — which includes a run, deadlift, power throw, hand-release pushups, a sprint/drag/carry dash, and a pullup-like leg tuck — is designed to reduce injuries and better prep soldiers for combat.
Sailors will replace sit-ups with a forearm plank to test abdominal strength on their Physical Readiness Test. They also can use a rowing machine for the cardio portion of the test.
Marines will add planks as an option for the Physical Fitness Test. Members of Marine Corps Officer Candidate Course No. 233, who report for training this month, will be the first to have that option.
A restructured Corps. The Marine Corps could ditch some military occupational specialties and add others as it reorganizes to fight a more complex enemy.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger is leading a force structure review, which could lead to some Marine communities getting smaller in order to beef up others. The review is still ongoing, but Berger has called it his top priority. It might even involve cutting Marines to pay for updated equipment or training ranges.
“If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so,” Berger wrote.
Next-gen cutters. The Coast Guard will proceed with a plan to allow a Florida-based shipbuilder whose yard was devastated by a 2018 hurricane to continue constructing four new offshore patrol cutters.
Eastern Shipbuilding Group, which was damaged by Hurricane Michael, will get the OK to build some next-generation cutters — but not the nine it was originally slated to make.
Other companies, including those that lost the work to Eastern Shipbuilding Group in the original contract bid, can now try to pick up some of the new construction work.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said the revised plan will help prevent the cutter from being years behind schedule due to the damage the shipyard suffered.